How to manage flexible working requests

Before the pandemic, only around 5% of the workforce worked mainly from home. Now, early research is indicating that 48% of employees will likely work remotely at least part of the time after COVID-19.

While working remotely is only one aspect of flexible working, this speaks to a growing demand for flexible working from employees, and an ever-increasing awareness of the many potential benefits for organisations and employees.

As well as the impact of the pandemic, flexible working is also likely to become more widespread due to government action. The government is proposing to give all employees the right to request flexible working straight away when they start new jobs, with a consultation currently taking place. At the moment, workers must wait for six months to request flexible working.

The proposals would also see bosses have to respond to requests for flexible working more quickly than the current maximum of three months. It would also force firms to explain why any requests were refused.

Therefore, if employers do not properly and legally engage with flexible working requests in the coming months and years, it may have a significant impact on retention, employee engagement and their legal compliance.


The potential cost of refusing flexible working requests

In a recent case, a mother and estate agent wanted to return to work after maternity leave and asked her employer if she could work shorter hours, a four-day week, and leave at 5pm, rather than the normal end-of-day at 6pm, to pick her daughter up from nursery. She was awarded £185,000 by an employment tribunal when they found that her employer had not considered her request properly, and she had been a victim of injustice on behalf of her sex.


So, what is flexible working?

Quite simply, flexible working is a pattern of work that differs from the one under which an employee is currently working.

Flexible working arrangements can come in many forms.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Working from home all or part of the time
  • Scaling down from full-time to part-time hours
  • Compressing work hours; i.e., working five days’ worth of hours in four days
  • Changing work hours – to fit around the school run, for example:
    • Staggered hours
    • Job sharing
    • Annualised hours.

There can be many benefits for employees and organisations from these changes, with the professional HR body CIPD noting: “There is a wide range of research and a strong evidence base for how flexibility can support inclusion, help to reduce the gender pay gap, support sustainability initiatives, attract and retain talented individuals, increase productivity and support wellbeing.”


Dealing with flexible working requests

As an employer, you’re responsible for dealing with the request in a “reasonable manner”. To ensure you deal with the request reasonably, we’d recommend holding a meeting with the employee to discuss the request.

This’ll give you the opportunity to delve into the reasons behind the request, find out how the change will benefit the employee and come to any compromises – if necessary.

During this meeting, you should allow the employee to bring a work colleague along – this applies to appeal discussions too (should it come to this). Any discussions should be held in a private place.

If you receive multiple flexible working requests, you should deal with them in the order you receive them. Remember, the outcome of the first request may impact your business’ structure, so be sure to factor this change into any subsequent requests


If you’re responding to a flexible working request for homeworking in the aftermath of COVID-19, you will need to consider such a request against the evidence of how homeworking has functioned in your business because of COVID restrictions.

It may be difficult to argue against some homeworking if it has generally worked well for your business and the employee in question.


Turning down a request

You can only turn down a flexible working request if you’ve got a genuine business case for doing so. There are eight ‘fair’ reasons for rejecting a request, which we cover in detail in our free guide – download below to find out more. This guide also covers:

  • How an employee must make a statutory flexible working request, including the information they must include
  • Who is exempt from making a statutory flexible working request?
  • How to make a decision – including what you must do legally
  • How to update the employee’s contract of employment
  • An employee’s right to appeal and the appeal process
  • Non-statutory flexible working requests

Flexible working: your responsibilities

Everything you need to know about your responsibilities as an employer when it comes to flexible working requests.

Download the guide

How we can help

We’re living in unprecedented times when it comes to flexible working requests, so it’s important that employers seek advice to avoid costly tribunals from ill-practice. Our Employment Law and HR experts are available 24/7 to our clients to take you through your next steps. If you’re an existing client of ours, please call 0345 844 4848.

If you’re not already a client of ours, please call 0161 532 4516 to find out more.

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