The Government has today suggested that flexible working be normalised, and employees are given the option for part-time and flexible working from home in an effort to boost productivity and particularly help women and those working outside of major cities.
There is undoubtedly an increased appetite amongst employees to work from home following three lengthy lockdowns that have forced businesses to adjust to this way of working. However, this right already exists in law and has done since the flexible working regulations were introduced in 2014. The statutory regime requires employers to give due consideration to such a request and provided that certain tests are fulfilled, they should grant it.
In particular, employers can refuse if the change will disproportionately increase its costs, adversely affect its ability to meet customer demand or affect the organisation of other staff. In job share situations, the inability to recruit additional staff also allows a refusal, as does a detrimental impact on quality and performance.
What the Government is now proposing is that employers give due consideration to flexible working in advance of recruiting new staff such that it becomes an integral part of the job offer. The hope is that this will attract more applications from women, from where undoubtedly the vast majority of current flexible working applications arise.
If the research behind this is correct then it would lead to a 30% increase in job applications which must be a good thing for employers and applicants alike as it will provide opportunities to recruit staff that would otherwise be lost and open up economic dependence for thousands of women.
The research also suggests that greater transparency in job adverts would create at least a further 174,000 flexible jobs per year. This would obviously be very welcome given the loss of around 700,000 jobs due to the pandemic, but more importantly it will open up opportunities for women who would otherwise simply not bother applying because of the constraints primarily arising from their childcare responsibilities.
This enthusiasm should be balanced with a note of caution. Many employers are concerned about too many staff choosing to continue to work from home. Whilst staff will argue that it’s worked for 12 months so why not carry on, there are genuine concerns from business that a lot of the benefits of staff working together may be lost. The opportunities for developing new ideas, sharing knowledge, training junior staff and simply feeling part of a team which engenders loyalty and reduces staff turnover are all important factors to having your workforce back at work.
Perhaps a middle ground will be required as we come out of lockdown, with businesses relaxing the rules on flexible working to some extent, and preserving that all important “team culture” that helps business grow and prosper.
What is certain is that change is inevitable. Those businesses that seize the opportunity to become that flexible employer of choice will attract more applicants and no doubt more women to their ranks and help retain those that they already have. This pandemic has thrown the cards up in the air as far as flexible working is concerned. It is now incumbent on employers and employees to make the adjustment for their mutual benefit and help the economy recover quickly and continue to prosper in the post-Brexit future we now face.
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