Flexible Working Consultation: Should home working policy remain in the hands of business?

Published by Scott Challinor on November 19th 2021, 11:11am

On December 1, the government will close its consultation on proposed reforms to flexible working regulations.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many firms have realised the value of flexible working patterns in helping employees establish a robust work-life balance. It has also brought benefits for business leaders themselves, increasing productivity in house, fuelling staff motivation and attracting higher numbers of candidates for vacant roles.

At the height of the first lockdown in April 2020, 47 per cent of the UK workforce was working from home, compared with just 11 per cent in 2018. Ministers believe that this enforced change has demonstrated to business leaders that wholesale change to working practices in roles where flexible working is practical, can be possible.

Indeed, the mutual benefits have prompted some employers to consider making flexible working arrangements permanent. According to a survey carried out by the Institute of Directors, 74 per cent of company directors have said that their organisation intends to increase homeworking from pre-pandemic levels, while 43 per cent have indicated that flexible working will be increased more widely, with measures such as flexitime, staggered hours and compressed hours being implemented.

Legislation around flexible working is not new. It dates back as far as 2003, with the law at the time providing parents and certain other carers with a right to request a flexible working arrangement, which covered work location, working hours and working pattern. More recently, The Flexible Working Regulations 2014 extended that right to request a flexible working arrangement to all employees who have continuously worked for the business for 26 weeks or more.

The current consultation, entitled Making Flexible Working the Default, launched by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, goes even further, proposing that the current Right to Request a flexible working arrangement, becomes a “Right to Have”, removing the possibility of an employer refusing a flexible working request.

How to go about doing this poses a number of problems. Given the wide range of individual circumstances of employers and employees, the different types of flexible working patterns and more, a blanket policy on flexible working would be counter-intuitive, impractical and insensible.

Ministers, therefore, propose in the ongoing consultation that making flexible working the default should instead be based on a principle of facilitating constructive discourse between employer and employee wherever a flexible working request is made.

By facilitating these discussions and supporting two-sided flexibility, BEIS says that employers and employees will subsequently be able to make the appropriate arrangements which are mutually beneficial to both parties. This will avoid one side imposing certain ways of working on the other, and removing the capacity for the employer to outright reject any request.

In order to make this possible, the government has made five proposals to reshape the existing regulatory framework. These are:

- Making the Right to Request Flexible Working a day one right

- Considering whether the business reasons for refusing a Request all remain valid

- Requiring the employer to suggest alternatives

- The administrative process underpinning the Right to Request Flexible Working

- Requesting a temporary arrangement

While the government’s proposals are driven toward enabling two-way flexibility which will culminate in mutual benefit, any legislation is likely to pose a problem for businesses where flexible working patterns have a detrimental impact on productivity, rather than a positive one.

This has been the case for Techna International, an electrical and mechanical product supplier. Businessman John Mestitz, an Electrical Engineering & Computer Science graduate from University College London, has directed the business since 1998.

For businesses like Techna which work in the manufacturing and supply sphere and require staff to work on site, Mestitz has said in the run-up to the end of the consultation that flexible working arrangements simply are not practical for every role. He also believes that for many companies, flexible working policy should be the responsibility of business leaders, rather than have directors forced into compliance by government legislation.

“Working from home in our type of business caused a serious productivity decline during the pandemic,” Mestitz told The Leaders Council.

“Since the UK is already recognised as being less productive than some EU countries, I feel it would be prudent to make all flexible working rules down to individual company policy, rather than be decided by government.”

In Mestitz’s view, additional bureaucracy leads to further cost and inconvenience for which business must absorb the cost.

“Generally, employment legislation in the UK seems to not be pro-business. This adds unnecessary cost and bureaucracy to companies which in turn make them less competitive globally. This has a detrimental impact on the economy in the medium term.”

Mestitz also argues that given the difficulties around recruitment in various industries at present, it would be advantageous to lift many employment regulations to reinvigorate the employment landscape rather than restrict it with further rules.

“There are many recruitment shortfalls being reported across the UK in multiple industries right now. Considering this, ministers should consider whether it is the right time to remove many current employment regulations, creating a vibrant and dynamic employment landscape rather than the current bureaucratic and litigious one.

“Can you really have a free-market economy if the employment market is over regulated? I am not so sure.”

Photo by Susanna Marsiglia on Unsplash

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Authored By

Scott Challinor
Business Editor
November 19th 2021, 11:11am

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