Employees will be given the right to request flexible working from the first day of their employment under plans that the government says will give 2.2 million more people access to a better work-life balance.
Currently, workers have to wait until they have been in their role for six months. The plan would also mean bosses have to respond to requests for flexible working more quickly than the current maximum of three months. Under the proposals, firms would also be forced to explain why any requests were refused.
However, the new proposals will only grant the right to ask for flexible working – they will not automatically give people a right to flexible work. So while the plans are a step in the right direction for workers, they may not have as much of an impact if employers aren’t fully on board with flexible working.
“This is a very welcome decision and for many it will bring a significant number of additional benefits,” says Jason Brennan, director of wellness and leadership at the employee engagement software firm Wrkit.
“Our global survey into more than 4,000 remote employees shows that staff sleep better, often feel less stress and make more time for activities they enjoy with a better, more flexible work/life balance with remote working. Therefore, we would hope this legislation is the next step forward for flexible working and giving employees the choice to work where, and when, they are most content and productive.”
The shift towards flexible working will also benefit employers too and may lead to companies retaining staff, Brennan adds. “In the remote working world we now live in, talented employees have a far wider geographical range of jobs available to them,” he says.
“Therefore, allowances for flexible working arrangements, staff feeling supported by management to seek out a working pattern which suits their own needs, and the provision of tailored wellbeing support and employee incentives are fundamental in retaining talent.”
Although the pandemic has normalised remote working, UK workers still face challenges when it comes to requesting flexible working. At present, the law states that employees can only request to work flexibly after 26 weeks of employment, with a limit of one request each 12 months. Yet not everyone has the same access to the same flexible working opportunities.
Earlier this year, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development launched a campaign highlighting divisions in how employees are treated when it comes to accessing flexible working.
Its survey of more than 2,000 workers found almost half do not have flexible working arrangements such as flexitime, part-time working, compressed hours or job shares. A fifth of respondents said they work for organisations that do not offer any flexible working arrangements.
Moreover, those without access to flexible working are around twice as likely to be dissatisfied in their job, compared to those who do.
Although the proposals make it easier to request flexible work, they fall short of giving workers the full right to flexible working. Instead, a culture change is needed among employers. Although many businesses have embraced flexible and remote working as a result of the pandemic, others are less accepting.
Earlier this week, a City chief executive Andrew Monk claimed remote workers in financial services were less productive and some abused the opportunity to work from home. In an interview with the BBC, he said the government's proposals for remote working rights are "setting a tone that is almost making people think they can do part-time work but on full-time salaries".
Yet psychologists say this isn’t necessarily correct. Research has shown remote workers often lead people to work longer hours than if they were in an office. Professor Binna Kandola, business psychologist and senior partner at Pearn Kandola, said it’s simply not true that people are more productive when they’re in the office.
“It’s important that employers continue to offer flexible working if they hope to compete in the post-COVID era. There are lots of issues about working from home that still need to be worked through, but productivity isn’t one of them,” says Kandola.
“The biggest barrier to flexible working in the past was lack of trust: are people really working or are they watching Homes Under The Hammer? Indeed, one of the biggest issues of working from home is the lack of boundaries between work and home, which leads to people working longer hours than they need to,” he adds. “This then has a negative impact on wellbeing. It’s important that we adjust to more flexible ways of working for the benefit of our organisations and the wellbeing of our staff.”