This week the Government puts out proposals to consultation for laws which could see employees have the legal right to submit flexible working requests (FWRs) from the first day on a new job.
This is a significant reduction from the six months limit currently in legislation and would be matched, under the proposals, by a shortened requisite response time on the part of employers.
As a company which supports more than 6,500 SMEs around the UK, we broadly welcome proposals to speed up the process. Aside from giving employees a better work life balance, there are clear benefits to employers of offering more flexibility, including improved ability to recruit and retain staff across the age spectrum.
‘New laws can have unforeseen consequences … it is usually smaller businesses which feel those the most’
However, there are always knock-on effects of new legislation and it is usually smaller businesses which feel those the most.
The consultation is part of the Government’s Good Work Plan programme, under which The HR Dept has represented the views of UK SMEs since it was set up in 2018.
We are pleased that the Government is putting this out to consultation and The HR Dept will certainly have its say on the likely impact on SMEs nationwide.
Our prime concern is to urge the Government to thoroughly consider the implications for SME businesses, which employ 60 per cent of the UK’s private sector staff.
As mentioned, new laws can have unforeseen consequences so these need proper thought before the legislation is brought into effect.
For example, there are costs to consider when offering employees greater flexibility. When the home becomes the workplace there are health and safety implications, furniture, technological requirements, internet security issues and additional training needs.
It should also be emphasised that flexible working is much more than home working and that it applies to male and female employees. For example it might involve compacted hours such as a four day working week, to potential job sharing, annualised hours and phased retirement. Each of these has repercussions to consider.
There are likely to be impacts on required office space, something which may have a significant impact on margins and therefore needs considerable thought.
What about employee motivation? Will your current workforce resent opportunities given to new employees which they did not themselves enjoy? There may be issues over team morale to consider, in turn potentially impacting retention and productivity.
Flexible working from day one
And indeed, with all staff being offered flexible working from day one, is there likely to be an impact on creating those valuable relationships which can greatly support team performance?
At an incredibly challenging time for small businesses in particular, with many struggling to stay afloat, changes need to be properly thought through before implementation in law.
Can you refuse a flexible working request?
Currently, the rules allow for rejection of a flexible working application based on costs, administrative concerns, productivity or recruitment issues. Under the proposals, employers will still be able to refuse the request but their refusal must be reasonable. As ever, someone needs to decide the definition of reasonable.
What is vital is that employers are given authority to do what is best for the business – weighing up issues over recruitment and retention against concerns on productivity and profit.
What are flexible working patterns?
It is important to recognise the variety of flexible working patterns available. Hybrid working – a mixture of office and home-based working – is becoming more common but flexibility doesn’t just mean where you work. It includes giving the employee more say over which hours they work, supporting parents with nursery and school collection times, allowing flexibility for carers, avoiding rush hour traffic, giving breaks when required, potential job sharing, and so on.
Juggling employee requests
These ideas were first mooted in the 1980s. It could well be that now is the time to redesign these concepts for the 2020s with SMEs at the forefront. However the practical considerations, of juggling employee requests with the challenges of running a business, also need to be thought through.
We also believe changes are also needed in recruitment procedures, alongside investment in better technology and processes within individual businesses, to make the most of any new regulations.
If you look at online recruitment platforms, the default is always to offer binary choice of full or part-time working, never flexible employment. That needs to change. Employees will certainly be looking for flexibility, so it’s in everyone’s interests to make the offering apparent from the earliest stage of the process.
We would like to see policy makers recognising that SME owners need support to help them transition from the pre to post-pandemic employment environment. We’ll be doing our best to +make these concerns known.
Sue Tumelty is the founder of The HR Dept