In 2003 when it was originally introduced the right to request flexible working was limited to carers of children under age 6 (under 18 in the case of disabled children).
Over the years the right has been extended and currently applies to those caring for (1) children under 17, (2) disabled children under 18 and (3) adults.
This year the link between making the request and being a carer will be severed and all employees who have at least 26 weeks’ continuous service will be able to apply. The change was due to come into force on 6 April 2014 but is now likely to be delayed until later in the year.
The other major change is that the very rigid procedure for dealing with flexible working requests will disappear. The requirement for the future will focus on two key requirements; employers will need to:
• deal with applications in a “reasonable manner”; and
• notify employees of a decision within 3 months
In practical terms employers should put in place a process and ACAS is producing a Code of Practice to assist. This mirrors the current procedure but without the prescriptive time limits. Employers will need to meet the employee to discuss the request, consider this carefully, give a written decision and allow a right of appeal. As with other ACAS Codes the guidance will not be compulsory but is likely to be taken into account by Employment Tribunals.
The one aspect that is staying the same is that rejection of an application has to be for one of eight permitted reasons.
Figures recently given to Parliament suggest that there are wide discrepancies under the current regime between men and women, employees of different ages and regionally. By way of example in 2012:
• 18% of male applications were rejected as compared to 10% of those by women;
• Individuals in their 40s are the most likely to have applications rejected;
• Applications by employees in the Midlands are rejected far less often than those in either the North or South.
How should employers react to the extended right? Whilst the recession is far from over perhaps the changes should be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat. Much lip service is given to work-life balance but surveys show time and time again that pay is far from the only determinant of job satisfaction and that happy employees make for increased productivity. As a result it would be sensible to see flexible working in the wider context of a range of alternative forms of working such as working from home and other types of agile working. Look at the bigger picture; how can work be done most efficiently and effectively? Last but by no means least alternative forms of working can be eco-friendly.