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Are blanket flexible working laws the right thing for UK businesses?

A government move to introduce a day-one right to request flexible working has received a mixed response from campaigners and employers. 

Under proposals set to be announced tomorrow (Thursday, 23 September), the government will look to abolish the current six-month wait before an employee can make their request.

The proposals will form part of a consultation document that will also force employers to respond far quicker than the current three-month limit, and to give a legitimate reason if a request is refused.

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Speaking to HR magazine, Anna Whitehouse, founder of Mother Pukka and the #FlexAppeal campaign, said: “It’s been seven long years since my flexible working request to leave work just 15 minutes earlier was met with a hard and fast ‘no’. Their fear? That it would open the floodgates to others seeking flexibility. 

“Well here we are today, with the announcement that employees will no longer have to jump over a 26-week hurdle to even ask the question about flexible working.”

While an expansion of flexible working legislation was expected, there have been differing opinions on how far it should go. 

Earlier this year, the CIPD launched its Flex From 1st campaign to introduce a day-one right, but other organisations, including the TUC, had called on the government to make all jobs flexible by default. 

The 2019 Queen’s Speech signalled that ministers would implement the latter, but the new proposals don’t go that far.

“Flexible working should be the default across all workplaces in the UK but these proposals won't come close to achieving this,” Sue Coe, senior policy officer for equality and strategy at the TUC, told HR magazine. 

“We need a two-step approach to strengthening the law. Firstly, the government needs to unlock the flexibility in all jobs. Employers should think upfront about the flexible working options that are available in a role, publish these in all job adverts and give successful applicants a day one right to take it up. 

“Secondly, existing workers need to have a right to work flexibly from day one, unless there are exceptional circumstances that prevent it.”

Whitehouse describes the proposals as ‘progress’ but agrees that the government needs to go further. 

“Imagine if you didn’t even need to say the ‘F’ word to your employer? That’s the finish line when flexible working is the default for any job unless otherwise stated and justified,” said Whitehouse. 

Even in their current format there is concern that some employers and sectors will struggle with the proposals if they come into law. 

Ruth Cornish, founder and director of HRI, told HR magazine: “Of course, lots of people would like it to go further and make flexible working an absolute right. 

“But I think these proposals could make it quite hard for SMEs to compete as they may have just four or five staff that all want to work flexibly.” 

Cornish said although flexible working needed to be normalised, consideration had to be given to the impact on certain sectors. 

“It doesn’t work in every role, of course, so it has the potential to make certain occupations very unpopular at a time when everyone is struggling to recruit,” she added. 

“Let employers decide what works rather than having a massive change experiment at a time when everyone is struggling to compete and get the right people.”

The consultation will be published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and has been developed out of the government’s Good Work Plan.