It’s no secret that the Covid pandemic introduced permanent changes to the ways we work, with the battle between those who prefer working from home and those pushing for a return to office long dominating the HR landscape. Whilst many struggled with the darker side of at-home employment – such as anxiety, depression and social isolation – others contended with parenting concerns, disability constraints and mental health woes that made it difficult for them to be physically present in their roles.

Hybrid working emerged as a middle-ground solution, with the need for greater flexibility around people’s personal lives growing clear. Laid before parliament, the need for a more agile solution that can be adapted to individual needs was meticulously discussed, leading to the introduction of more lenient flexible working legislation, which came into force this April.

Flexible working requests

Before the legislation change, UK employees were entitled to make a formal flexible working request once per year – a frequency that has increased to twice every twelve months in April.

Although the outcome is still very much down to employers, provided that it’s fair and reasoned, workers can now ask to amend the number of hours they work, the time they start or finish, the days they work, or their work location, upon submitting a request in writing – a process known as statutory application.

Flexible working requests are most often put forward by parents who need leeway to be able to pick their children up from school, or by people with disabilities and other chronic health conditions – including poor mental health – who might struggle to come into the office as standard. Nevertheless, the reasons for flexible working requests are numerous and varied, with temporary motives – such as needing to change working hours for a period of a few weeks to participate in Ramadan – proving equally as important.

Given the law changes, employers should now be doing all they can to accommodate employee needs, recognising that traditional working schedules and calendars tend to be less inclusive.

What changed?

Previously, employees had to have worked at least 26 weeks before they could ask for changes. Now, however, they are entitled to file a request from day one. These requests will need to be dealt with within a period of two months, rather than three like before.

What’s more, team members filing a request need not suggest ways in which employees might accommodate the changes they’re asking for when making an application, the onus now being placed on employers to mitigate the impact.

How employers are required to respond

Once an employer receives a written request, they must weigh up the pros and cons, responding in what the government determines a “reasonable manner”. This essentially means listening to what the employee has to say, working out how their request could be aligned with the business, then holding a meeting with the employee in question to discuss the outcome.

If a request is accepted, the terms and conditions of the employees’ contract must be updated. Equally, if declined, the employee must be informed in writing, with clear reasons being given for the refusal. Acceptable motives for rejecting a request might include the changes proving detrimental to job performance, reduced quality standards or the amount of available work being low at the times requested, for example.

An appeal process must also be offered to the applicant in the event of a decline, with failure to do so potentially leading to tribunal.

Dealing with a high volume of flexible working requests

These changes mean many employers are experiencing higher volumes of flexible working requests. This increase will only grow along with awareness, particularly as the new Back to Work plan will potentially see a further 1,100,000 disabled people – most likely to need flexible working arrangements – return to the job market.

Employers would be advised to follow these six key steps:

  • Review and update current policies

It’s important to ensure that existing company rules align with new regulations. In addition to familiarising themselves with the new Acas statutory code of practice, which goes into more detail as to what a reasonable way of dealing with a request actually constitutes, company leaders must conduct an equality impact assessment to ensure their flexible working policies benefit everyone.

  • Consider how roles might be adapted

 Pre-emptive action must also be taken when it comes to considering how traditional roles might be adapted. Not all jobs can be done fully remotely, from home. This does not, however, mean that flexible working is out of the question. Team rostering and hybrid working are just two of many creative workarounds that help to keep employees happy whilst meeting business needs. It’s simply a case of brainstorming and thinking out of the box.

If these options can be put forward to workers before needing to ask for them, even better – serving to reduce the overall volume of bureaucracy associated with rising applications.

  • Management training

Perhaps most importantly of all, supervisors and managerial staff must be trained to deal with flexible working requests efficiently, effectively, compliantly and with compassion. This crucial step can make a world of difference when it comes to building a more adaptive workplace.

  • Open channels of communication

Employers must also ensure that employees are familiar with flexible working policies. Discuss the available options with clarity, particularly when dealing with recruitment, as people need to know that their needs will be accommodated before they start.

  • Track flexible progress

Monitoring access to and experiences of flexible working is also critical to performance, allowing employers to take direct employee feedback on board to implement mutually beneficial future improvements.

  • Embrace the opportunity

Remember that flexible working can be incredibly positive. By advertising new positions with flexible solutions in mind, employers can combat the skills crisis by opening up opportunity to a more diverse pool of talent.

Michael Doolin
Michael Doolin
Group Managing Director at Clover HR | + posts

Michael Doolin is the CEO of Clover HR and a subject matter expert in the areas of HR employment law, Reorganisation and Change, HR infrastructure, and policy and procedure development. He has held board director positions and designed and developed HR strategies for some of Europe's leading brands.