Flexible working: the facts

Flexible working is a particularly hot topic at the moment. But what does the term flexible working mean and what are your rights, both as an employer and an employee? Plus, are there drawbacks as well as pluses?

More and more families are requesting to work in ways that allow them to better balance work and family life. Since 2003, parents of children younger than six or of disabled children and carers of adult partners or relatives living at their address have had the right to request flexible working from their employer. From April 2009, this has been extended to parents of children under 16. 

 Eligible employees are able to request:
- a change to the hours they work
- a change to the times when they are required to work
- to work from home.

This flexible approach embraces everything from part-time work, job shares, annualised hours and term time work to working some or all of the time from home. The employer has a duty to consider their requests seriously, although they do not have to accede to the request.

To qualify to request flexible working an employee must have worked for at least 26 continuous weeks with their employer.
It is important to remember that the legislation only grants a right to request flexible working and it should not be assumed it will be granted.

Employees need to be prepared to make a good business case for why they should be allowed to work in this way, including thinking about potential solutions to problems their employer might anticipate. This might include the possibility of a job share, alternative patterns of flexible working or a trial period if the employer is worried about how it will work.  

Employers can refuse a request on the following grounds: if they can demonstrate an inability to rearrange work among existing staff, if they can show flexible working will incur a financial burden on their company; if it will have a detrimental effect on their ability to meet customer demand and if they can show they will be unable to recruit additional staff and that the request will have a serious impact on the employee’s performance or quality of work.

The important thing is to remember that flexible working is a negotiation process and your case will be stronger if you can show you are also willing to be flexible, for instance, you could offer to be available, either in person or by conference call, for urgent meetings on a day off.

The benefits
Many companies believe the policy has worked to their benefit, allowing them to retain experienced staff, particularly women, to provide cover outside normal office hours, to respond to changing seasonal needs, to reduce absenteeism and to increase loyalty and motivation among staff.
Women have successfully brought cases claiming discrimination if they are not allowed flexible working on the grounds that, since they are often the primary carer of children, a refusal to grant flexible working is more likely to affect them. Men can also bring cases if a mother in their company has been granted flexible working and they have been refused.
The legislation lays out a formal procedure for applying for flexible working and employees have to argue clearly what the advantages would be to both them and their employer of allowing them to work flexibly, for instance, retaining an experienced member of staff. If an employee is unhappy about the way their company has dealt with their case, they can take their case to an employment tribunal.
Checklist for employers:
- Employers should try to treat each request objectively and to treat all requests in the same way, whether from men or women.
- The law stipulates that they must set up a meeting to discuss the employee’s request for flexible working within 28 days and then reply to the request within 14 days of the meeting.
- If a request is turned down, the employer must reply in writing, giving a clear business case reason for the decision.
- Employers are encouraged to set out a clear flexible working policy to avoid confusion and ensure consistency in the way they handle requests.
- They should show that they are open to looking at flexible work requests in all jobs, no matter how senior.
- It is also a good idea to think more laterally about encouraging flexible working across the board to avoid resentment by other colleagues and to show a consistent approach to employees.
- Human resources staff should ensure that the flexible working policy is clearly publicised and that all managers are aware of how it works.
- It is also advisable to monitor requests for flexible working and to track how they are working in practice.

So far, around 90% of requests for flexible working have been granted either fully or partially. Reports suggest the number of mothers who work flexible hours has more than doubled since 2003 and the number who have changed employers after returning to work has halved.

Once a parent has been formally granted flexible working, this then becomes a permanent change to their contract and if an employer later wants to change that they must have formal discussions with the employee. If they do not, the employer can be found in breach of contract.

Employers are still getting to grips with the practicalities of promoting flexible working. Many, worried about losing experienced workers, are keen to implement it, but remain unclear of how to manage it and what works best. Several organisations are blazing a path and providing examples of good practice, for instance, they provide models for how to manage home workers to ensure they do not feel isolated or sidelined. Some argue that flexible working has other benefits besides the ones listed above, for instance, it can mean greater productivity as workers who are not able to make it into the office when a child is sick or they feel under the weather may be able to work some hours from home. Then there are the benefits of reducing overcrowding at rush hour if fewer people are required to commute on a regular basis.

 For more information: Equality and Human Rights Commission
Government information

What is your experience of flexible working? Does your company promote a good model of flexible working? Has flexible working worked for you? Email us at mandy@workingmums.co.uk


Have your say

We are just going through flexi time - don't know what it means.

Editor: It usually means varying start and finish times, eg, you start early and end early or start late and end late.


Anonymous | Report this comment

Requested to work 8.30 to 4.30 and have a half an hour lunch break. The company said I had to have an hour's lunch break and they would reduce my pay...which I cannot afford to lose. My request was due to childcare problems after 5pm.

Editor: Are you seeking advice on appealing this? If so, write to our experts via the Advice & Support/Q & A page box. Is the one hour lunch break set down in your contract?

Anonymous | Report this comment

I'm currently on flexible working and have been for over a year now, but my company are now trying to increase my hours and change my work pattern. They are saying this is because the needs of the business have changed, but they've not taken any of my needs in to consideration and are making this as difficult as they can for me. Can they do this? 

Editor: They cannot change your terms and conditions without going through a consultation and getting your consent.

Anonymous | Report this comment

I applied for flexible working before I returned from maternity leave which was denied and I chose not to appeal. I now wish to reapply after being back at work for 4 months. Is this possible?

Editor: You cannot reapply for flexible working until 12 months have elapsed between applications.

Anonymous | Report this comment

I was granted flex time at work for 1 year, however they are now reviewing it and possibly going to change back to normal hours/days. Are they allowed to do this just on the basis of another girl wanting flexi hours/days?

Editor: When flexible working is granted it is a permanent change to your terms and conditions, unless otherwise agreed, so it cannot be changed without consultation with you and your agreement - see https://www.gov.uk/your-employment-contract-how-it-can-be-changed

Anonymous | Report this comment

I have worked at the same company for 13 years and have been on flexible working since I had my child 3 years ago.
She is about to start school in September and my boss now wants me to work 5 days a week.
At the moment I do 20ish hours a week, I would like to keep doing 20ish hours but spread over 4 days to fit in round the school run and to be able to cover holiday can she do this?

Editor: Increasing your hours is a change to your terms and conditions so could not be done without consultation with you and your agreement. You could suggest the four days option as a positive in terms of covering more days.

Anonymous | Report this comment

Dear Sir,

I rfer to your article where it states "Once a parent has been formally granted flexible working, this then becomes a permanent change to their contract and if an employer later wants to change that they must have formal discussions with the employee". So now my employer has discussed with me they wish to withdraw my agreed flexible working arrangement, which consists of two days a week working from home. I made it clear that I do not consent to this change, but they say that they will withdraw it in any case, albeit they have allowed me the right to appeal. Is there any law, and if so please let me know which law it is, that forbids any changes to an agreed and signed flexible working arrangement unless both parties consent to it?

Editor: Under the flexible working legislation any changes that are agreed are permanent - see http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=1616

Anonymous | Report this comment

can my employer withdraw my flexible working agreement without consultation? After 1 year we agreed to modify them for buisness reasons and they now say that from that day my agreement ended without me even being told! Can they legally do this?

Editor: No, a flexible working agreement is a permanent change to your terms and conditions and cannot be changed without due consultation.

Anonymous | Report this comment

I have been granted flexible working in july 2012 and now they want to change my shift pattern, they want me to work an extra shift , they have spoken to me but state I must change although this will be detrimental to my family where do I stand they are stating that this is due to the department I work in not having any profiled work although for nearly 7 months they allowed me to work in another department from 6pm till 9pm and I am willing to carry on do the same as I have done since then.

Editor: Does your contract allow for changes to your shift pattern? See http://www.workingmums.co.uk/advice-and-support/all/page_2/6330928/employer-wants-to-change-shift-patterns-ask-the-expert.thtml

Anonymous | Report this comment

My question was the one above regarding me being on flexible working since 2012. I have never been given a new contract so do not know where I now stand.This is the fault of the company that I work for as this was not my job to get them to issue me with a new contract and I was not aware this had not been done by my personal department, although I have e mails agreeing to my shifts that I currently work

Editor: You are entitled to a written contract - http://www.adviceguide.org.uk/wales/work_w/work_rights_at_work_e/contracts_of_employment.htm. You should request a written contract and if this is not given to you, consider lodging a grievance. Have you formally requested flexible working? Please write in to our legal experts with full information via our Advice & Support/Q & A page box.

Anonymous | Report this comment

I was granted flexi work in July 2013 for 25 hours Monday to Friday! Although my partner has just started a new job and his shifts are all over the place so I asked to reduce my hours to 16 over 3 days but my employer said he didn't think he can because I Tied into a flexi work agreement?

Editor: You can change a flexible work agreement, but you can only apply once every 12 months so you can apply again in July 2014 for a change to your flexible working pattern.

Anonymous | Report this comment

I have been working four days a week since I went back to work after my first child in 2007 and it has never been raised as a problem or concern. A month or so ago one of my assistants left which leaves just my other assistant on their own on the day I don't work. I don't think my employer has any plans to replace my assistant and I'm concerned that they will want me to start working full-time again. I now have other commitments on the day I don't work which include the school run and helping in my children's school. I'm sure other colleagues could cover key times on the day I don't work. As a poster above mentioned I don't have a new contract outlining the hours/days I now work but as I have been doing them for so long is that good enough?

Editor: You could argue custom and practice [see http://www.freelanceadvisor.co.uk/go-freelance-guide/custom-and-practice-and-employment-contract-terms/] and if you changed your hours via a flexible working request that would constitute a permanent change in your terms and conditions so would require consultation and obtaining your agreement for any changes.

Anonymous | Report this comment

I requested flexible Working in May of this year, via email, I then had an email from my manager saying that it was acceptable to our md at this time, his email was attached,subsequently my previous manager has left and now I am being told that the hours I put down are not acceptable any more, I need the change to be able to pick my daughter up from reception after school club that would mean me needing to leave 15 minutes early twice a week. I also would need to start at 9:15 on those days as I can't drop her off until 8.45. I already go in at this later time on one of the days and have done since 2012 , can they now back track on this due to a new manager starting?? I have now only 2 weeks to arrange something else if even possible as I have only just been advised. They have not kept to the timescales set at all, I have been the one trying to get it arranged all year.

Editor: Was the email from your manager the result of the flexible working process or did he just say that before meeting with you and going through the formal process? See http://www.workingmums.co.uk/advice-and-support/q-and-a/5194913/parttime-hours-suddenly-rescinded-ask-the-expert.thtml

Anonymous | Report this comment

Does a request to increase my hours during my annual review back in January ,which was subsequently denied ,count as flexible working request? I have submitted a official request to change how I work my hours ( spread over 4 days instead of 5 due to urgent family commitments in July this year ,and they are now saying that I already had requested this year, without giving this request serious consideration? Can they do this? do I have to wait till January now?

Editor: Can you give more information on your request - did you put in a formal request - see https://www.gov.uk/flexible-working/applying-for-flexible-working?

Anonymous | Report this comment

I have worked for nhs admin for 12 years,dropped to mon - Thursday working 4.5 years ago now told I can have a Wednesday off permanently as the needs in the workplace have changed and Friday is very busy.fridays are no different to any other day and work can be caught up on sat and sun as we have no deliveries then.over the 4 years they have started new people on ,some not incorporating a Friday in their rota and recently a mom has picked up extra day at work again not a Friday.had to put a request in classed as new request for Fridays off for it to be rejected,explained I cannot do any other day off as I take my elderly father to hospital appointments ,need to as he is deaf and also care for my 89 year old mother who is housebound and is also deaf.she has recently broke her hip so I'd class her as disabled and also look after my 2 year old grandson on a Friday whilst his parents work.i said I am being forced into a corner and will have to leave.

Editor: This would constitute a change to your terms and conditions and you would be entitled to full consultation and your agreement would need to be obtained - see https://www.gov.uk/your-employment-contract-how-it-can-be-changed/getting-agreement

Anonymous | Report this comment

Hi, I had my flexible working agreement agreed back in 2012.

Since then I have been working 5 days a week but 3 of them from home.

This has not been an issue and I have made childcare arrangements based on the above.

My manager is now telling me he wants me to come in an extra day a month.

This is a change to my agreement as i have been working from home for 3 days a week for over 2 years now.

Legally can they do this?

Editor: A formal flexible working agreement is a permanent change to your terms and conditions so to change that would require your employer to consult you and obtain your agreement - see https://www.gov.uk/your-employment-contract-how-it-can-be-changed/getting-agreement. Is there any particular reason for the change?

Anonymous | Report this comment

Thanks for getting back to me.

I have met with my management and told them I do not agree to them changing my work pattern. (3 days from home, 2 in the office)

They have told me they are going to seek advice from HR and will get back to me.

Basically we have gone from a 6 person team to a 5 person team, and the office cover is on a rota. Management want 2 people to be in the office at 9am every day. (everyone can start at 10am if they want to, but most still come in at 9am as they have flexi time)

I work from home 3 days a week so on the two days I am in the office, I cover the 9am shift.

My management has said that we all have to do cover the 9am cover 9 times a month. But with my current work pattern I can only cover 8 so this would mean someone else would need to do an extra day a month.

I have said I dont have an issue with covering phones etc from home (we have direct access laptops, telephone systems etc so when im at home I have the same access as if I was in the office)

My manager says its not fair someone should have to do 10 shifts to cover the extra 1 they have asked me to do. But then I have explained that I have made arrangements based on my work pattern which has been in place for over 2 years.

As we have 4 other staff members who do not have flexible working I do not understand why they cannot cover the shift as they will be in the office anyway, all be it they will have to start at 9am.

The rota is based on 4 staff doing 9 cover days each and the manager covering only 4.

Can they "review" my agreement? Management are saying its "operational" and a change to the "business" hence the reason they need me to come in.

I dont feel this is the case as I am more than capable of covering phones, emails etc remotely (i have been for over 2years).

Thanks in advance for your help.

Editor: Our HR expert Sandra Beale says it would be unfair dismissal if they change your terms and conditions without your written agreement.

Anonymous | Report this comment

Hello, I sent an email to my boss to request flexible working hours. I simply asked for a certain amount of hours over term time, and said I could be flexible with the days they wished me to work. I explained my case and said I understood that this will have to be discussed after 28 days I have still not heard anything back. I am not sure what to do now. Do I send the email application again?

Editor: Legally, your employer has to finish the whole flexible working request process within three months so you could send a reminder to your employer and point out the legal timeframe - see http://www.workingmums.co.uk/working-mums-magazine/hot-topics/7890872/extending-flexible-working.thtml

Anonymous | Report this comment

I applied for flexible working back in August this year wishing to work 4 days per week and set hours due to childcare. My employers agreed to this and I have had no problems with this since then. My employer then gave me my hours for next week (Christmas week) and my hours are completely different to what I would normally work. Is my employer legally allowed to change my hours when I have been granted flexible working without consulting me?

Editor: Your employer cannot change your terms and conditions without consulting you unless there is something in your contract that says something to the effect that hours are subject to change, etc, for business reasons. A flexible working agreement is a permanent change to your terms and conditions.

Anonymous | Report this comment

I returned to my post as a Deputy Headteacher following maternity leave in 2011. My request to work part time was agreed and I work 0.5 as Deputy Head. No one was employed to work the other 0.5 of my post but a member of staff was promoted to less senior post to cover some of my duties. When a new Headteacher is appointed would they be able to:
A. Make me work full time?
B. Replace me with a full time equivalent?


Editor: If they wanted to change your terms and conditions they would have to consult with you and could not simply impose full time on you as flexible working is a permanent change to your terms and conditions - see https://www.gov.uk/your-employment-contract-how-it-can-be-changed/getting-agreement. If they argued that your post could not be done on a part-time basis and sought to replace you with a full-time equivalent they would need to justify this and you could claim that you have been doing the role part time for some time.

Anonymous | Report this comment

Further to above: if they decided the post had to be full time, would it be ring fenced for me or could it be advertised more widely?

Editor: Our HR expert Tara Daynes says: They aren't really creating a new position here, just changing the T&Cs of her existing one from part time to full time. So they should certainly give her first refusal on the role - if they made it full time but opened it out to other candidates & one of those was successful, what then happens to her? They can't just dismiss her with no opportunity to either accept or refuse the change. If she refused the full time role it could potentially be a redundancy situation, but she should have grounds to argue that other reasonable options were available, eg a job share, unless they can objectively justify the situation. So they should definitely give her the option to go full time before thinking about bringing anyone else in, either instead of or as well as her exisiting position.

Anonymous | Report this comment

I returned to work last July doing 2 days a week which was fine. Last week I was asked to work full time or else I would be made redundant. Can they do that?

Editor: Did you negotiate the two days through a flexible working request? If so, the change to your working hours represents a permanent change to your terms and conditions and if your employer wishes to change them they must consult you fully - see https://www.gov.uk/your-employment-contract-how-it-can-be-changed/getting-agreement

Anonymous | Report this comment

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