Small Business Blog

Practical advice for startups, small and growing businesses. Interviews, features, opinion and commentary from journalists, bloggers and entrepreneurs who know what matters to SMEs.


There’s Nothing to Fear in the New Flexible Working Rules

A few weeks have passed since the law surrounding flexible working changed, but has anything much changed for small businesses?

24th July 2014 at 10:39 pm

A few weeks have passed since the law surrounding flexible working changed, and you might have noticed that the business world has not collapsed into a smouldering heap. The law change went largely unreported outside HR circles prior to the change, but there was a flurry of media exposure on the day. It might have come as something of a surprise to business owners who pay more attention to meeting deadlines than to the ins and outs of employment law.

What was interesting was the tone of the reporting – and in some cases, the facts. Unless you were listening very carefully you might have thought that suddenly all employees were suddenly entitled to flexible working and all they had to do was ask their bosses. Respondents to radio phone-ins – some of whom purported to be business owners themselves – expressed concern about what this could do to their businesses.

But while their worry might have been justified, the background to it was not – because the change meant nothing of the sort. It was merely a recalibration of a law that seemed to be biased towards parents and carers. Any hint of a threat to a business’s operations caused by flexible working would have resulted in the request being turned down – just as had always been the case. Nonetheless, it’s worth briefly covering the history of the flexible working rules to see where we currently stand.

An Evolving Law
The Employment Rights Act 1996 was amended in 2003 to give some assistance to parents that might help them back to work or to discourage them from quitting work and falling into the benefits trap. In short, employees had the right to request certain changes to their work pattern, be they hours, days, location or a combination of these and other factors. In 2007, the Act was amended to give anyone caring for adults the same right.

But “request” is the operative word here. An employer is under no obligation to grant a request if it is considered that the change would have a detrimental impact on the operation of the business. One request can be made every 12 months.

The only thing to change on 30 June 2014 was that the right to request flexible working was extended to all employees with 26 weeks’ service for the employer. Caring for children or adults is no longer a precondition.

For a gauge to the impact of the change, several advisors from Peninsula Business Services (a company to whom SMEs outsources their HR) were asked to give their views on how the flexible working rules as they stood had affected the businesses they deal with. The results are covered in this white paper (which also goes into much greater detail about the law, and is well worth a read).

The conclusions were, on the whole, encouraging for business owners. With every request required to pass the “detrimental effect” test – and with most types of flexible working having at least some undesirable effect – the default has been to reject.

Embracing the Changes
While differences between limited and full availability can’t be ignored, it does seem that the effects on companies have been minimal. Indeed, flexibility requests have led some employers to question their own nine-to-five mindset and conclude that offering flexibility could actually be to their advantage, not only in terms of employee wellbeing but also in raw operational effectiveness. Show us a freelancer or self-employed person who rigidly works nine-to-five, Monday to Friday – when you’re starting out, you’re reactive, flexible and eager, but as soon as employees enter the equation there’s a pressure to conform. It doesn’t have to be like this.

Far from being something to fear, flexibility might actually be a springboard to opportunity, a can-do attitude residing in the more creative parts of the mind. Whether you use it or not, the change in the law is nothing to be worried about.

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