Returners Career Advice

The Changing Face of Flexible Working

Paul Brown
08.06.2022 Published: 08.06.22, Modified: 08.06.2022 15:06:18

Proponents have long been advocating the merits of flexible working – as a veritable alternative to the conventional 9 to 5. Ironically however, it was the COVID-19 pandemic that became a dubious champion of flexible work and demonstrated how the arrangement can work successfully – to the effect that it’s become widely accepted around the world and a practice that is here to stay.

In the aftermath of what is being touted as the Great Resignation of 2021, the talent market has become a chiefly candidate-driven one. More and more companies are now vying to attract and retain quality talent with a range of attractive benefits. Yet, flexible working is one of the fundamental benefits that most applicants have come to expect. According to a report by Timewise, 84% of full-time male workers either work flexibly or would want to, whilst this figure is 91% for women. The preference for flexible work is highest among young workers with 92% wanting flexibility.

In this blog we’ll look at:

Flexible working arrangements

The way we work has changed forever and now flexibility – that until recently seemed like a ‘perk’ reserved only for the most progressive work cultures, and only to a handful of new-age tech companies, has become a standard way of working around the world. This evolution of the concept of flexible working is worth considering.  

The three main pillars that define the changing face of flexible work are the – Where, When, and How.

Remote working is often used interchangeably with flexible working. In truth it covers just one aspect of the arrangement – the ‘where’.

‘Where’ in the context of flexible working addresses the issue of geographic flexibility. It refers to the flexibility of choosing your work location. This arrangement was the first manifestation of flexible working where people got the option of working from home. The pandemic and multiple lockdowns necessitated the option of remote work and proved beyond doubt that ‘being in office’ was not a prerequisite for conducting business.

‘When’ refers to the hours you’re able to commit. It provides the flexibility of choosing your core hours with an option for an early start or finish. For example – instead of the usual 9 to 5, you could request earlier start and finish times. This is particularly useful for parents with childcare responsibilities. Time flexibility also includes the option of working compressed hours over fewer days as well as term-time only commitments.

‘How’ or ‘how much’ refers to the amount of time you’re able to work. This includes the option of full-time, part-time, or annualised hours.

When to request flexible working

At present, employees in the UK have to work in their appointed roles for a period of at least 26 weeks before they can make a request for flexible working arrangements. This includes working from home and early start and finish times. According to a recent report by Timewise, just over 11% of jobs over FTE £20K are currently advertised as open to flexibility. This necessarily becomes a barrier for candidates applying to these roles who need flexibility but are worried about the advert not specifically mentioning it.

For those looking to return to work after a career break, this can be a doubly daunting prospect. From facing recruitment biases like the career gap penalty to struggling to explain employment gaps in your CV, returners have to deal with a lot of extra baggage. On top of this, those who require flex working arrangements due to childcare can be discouraged to apply to roles that don’t advertise it.

Changes to the Employment Law

According to a report by Capital Law, in September 2021 the UK Government published a consultation document to reform the right to request flexible working under a new Employment Bill. Proposed changes to the Employment Bill are set to pave the way for positive amendments to flex working conditions. One of the main proposals is to make flexible working a ‘day one’ right.

Under this new proposal, employees will no longer have to wait for 26 weeks to make a request for flexible working. They can start from the first day of employment. Additionally, the proposal outlines that employers will have to justify their reasons to decline a request as soon as an employee starts in their role.  They will need to provide valid evidence of why a role cannot be flexible. For example – if it’s a role for a construction worker, or an F&B Manager at a hotel, the employers could prove that they can’t be flexible.

However, for most other roles that can be done remotely, any refusal to accommodate flex working requests will have to be justified. The new legislation could also require employers to suggest alternatives to what has been requested by the employee and consider a temporary arrangement.

The report further mentions that the consultation document ‘includes reforming the HR procedure of making flexible working requests. As it stands, employees can only make one request every 12 months and employers have 3 months to consider the request and make a decision. Potentially increasing how often an employee can make a request will somewhat reduce existing barriers to flexible working and would recognise that employees’ personal circumstances can quickly change. Where these changes are temporary, the Government suggests encouraging employees to request temporary arrangements. This option is already available in the current framework, but underutilised.’

Employment Rights Act

In spite of the positive developments around flexible working, it’s worthwhile to note that employers have eight business reasons to reject a request as outlined in the Employment Rights Act. The reasons include:

1. High additional costs for the employer to accommodate your request

Employers can deny a flexible working request if it involves incurring additional expenses. This could be various factors like having to pay overtime wages to other staff for taking on extra work.

2. Inability to reorganise work among existing staff

If the employee requesting flex work has a very specific skill or role that can’t be delegated to other team members, it would be valid grounds for the employer to deny their request.

3. Inability to make additional hires

A flexible working request can be denied if it involves the business having to make additional hires to accommodate the request. For example – if an employee working at a restaurant wanted to finish an hour early, the employer would need to hire someone to pick up the one-hour shift, at an extra financial burden to the business.

4. A negative impact on quality

Employers can refuse a flexible working request if it has a detrimental effect on quality. For example – if an employee in a customer facing role wants to work two days a week, this would have an overall negative impact on customer service.

5. A negative impact on business performance

If a flexible working arrangement has a detrimental impact on the employee’s productivity, then it’s a valid reason for the employer to refuse their request.

6. Inability to meet customer demands

An employer can refuse your flexible working request if it prevents the business from meeting customer demands. For example – if you request to work from 8am to 4pm and customer engagement with your business is highest from 4pm to 6pm, granting your request would affect the employer’s ability to meet customer demands.

7. Insufficient work during the requested period of employment

If an employee requests work hours where there isn’t sufficient work for them to do, the employer can turn down the request. For example – if an employee at a retail outlet requests an early start at 8am and an early finish, this could be turned down by the employer on the grounds that there isn’t sufficient work for them to do during these early hours.

8. Planned changes to the business model or structure

A business that is planning changes to its model or other structural changes can has valid grounds for refusing a flexible working request.

Flexibility when you return to work

Despite the obvious merits of flexible working, job seekers are often nervous about bringing it up when applying for a new role – particularly if the job advert doesn’t specify the option for flexibility. For those looking to return to work after a career break, there are several ways you can approach the issue.

One approach is being upfront and asking about flexible working options at initial interview stage. This gives you clarity from the onset and in case the company don’t offer flex work and that’s a deal-breaker, it saves you time and effort continuing with the application process.

However, the other approach is to wait until you’ve moved to the offer stage where you’ve already demonstrated your suitability as a candidate and have more negotiating power. You can also use the final stage interviews to talk about any other flexible working environments you may have been in and explain how you managed to make it work.

However, for any arrangement to be successful, there has to be clear communication between you and the employer. Make sure your requests are in keeping with the demands of the job.

The FDM Return to Work Scheme offers you a guided journey back to work. In addition to our industry-recognised training and experience, we also provide comprehensive support throughout your career with us. Our expert teams, many of whom are returners themselves, understand how daunting it can be when you’re looking to return after a break and will be with you every step of the way.

Our support programmes include wellbeing and mentoring programmes, as well as support for flexible working arrangements should you require them, to help you transition swiftly and confidently back to the working world.

Are you interested in training for a career in business or tech? You can do so on our award-winning Returners Programme.