From April 2014, the right to request flexible working will be extended to all employees, not just those that have children under the age of 17 or responsibilities as a carer.
Under the current regulations, the employee has to make a request in writing and the employer has to discuss the request with the employee within 28 days, giving their decision within a further 14 days.
The employee then has 14 days to appeal that decision if they wish. The changes to the rules next year mean that employers and employees will no longer have to process requests in a particular way and within a specific timeframe.
This move to a less formal process, combined with the decision to open up flexible working rights to all employees is likely to be welcomed by businesses.
Research published by the CBI in July found firms can save up to 13% of their workforce costs by embracing more sophisticated and less rigid working practices.
While most employers will want to accommodate flexible working requests wherever possible and appreciate that less rigid working practices can bring real benefits in terms of worker loyalty and productivity, they should be prepared for some difficult discussion along the way.
In some instances, where workplace attendance for a pre-determined set of hours is essential to meeting the operational needs of the business, the business should be seen to be considering all such requests in a structured way.
One person's right to flexible working could be another's annoyance and a rush on requests to avoid work on a specific day of the week, Friday for example, could put the employer in a difficult position from both an operational and employee relations perspective.
Receiving a number of requests to condense a five-day work week into four, with Friday or Monday off, could force the employer into a situation where it would be required to agree to some requests while rejecting others.
Also, if some employees are allowed to work through their lunch break in order to extend their working day, allowing them to reduce the number of days they work, this could cause resentment and might also leave the employer susceptible to potential breaches of health and safety regulations if rest breaks are not being adhered to.
Flexible working requests often include the right to work remotely for part of the working day or week.
Despite the fact that these days most workers are equipped to communicate with the office or with customers via a smartphone or another device which is connected to the office shared drive, some employers might not be aware that if they allow staff to work remotely, they may be required to ensure that their home-based work station is fit for purpose and compliant with health and safety regulations.
Crucially for employers, the eight grounds for refusing requests for flexible working, which are currently available for employers will remain in place. These include the burden of additional costs; detrimental effect on the ability to meet customer demand; inability to reorganise work among existing staff; detrimental impact on quality and performance; insufficiency of working during the periods the employee is proposed to work and planned structural changes.
Despite the more relaxed process for handling flexible working requests, employers would be wise to stick to current procedures where possible to ensure that all requests are treated fairly and in a timely fashion. Failing to do so could increase the likelihood of workplace resentment and potential disputes.
It is also a good idea to consider a three-month trial when flexible working arrangements are granted. After three months, a meeting should take place to discuss how the arrangement is working out for both parties and changes can be implemented if necessary. This approach would help employers to demonstrate that they have given fair consideration to the individual's request to work flexibly, even if the right is later withdrawn.
Although not without their concerns, the incoming changes to flexible working rights represent a massive opportunity for employers to change the way they operate while improving employees' work life balance. The key will be managing requests openly and fairly for all, while ensuring the operational needs of the business and its customers are met.
Paula Whelan (pictured) is head of employment at law firm Shakespeares