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What is flexible working? What rights does the law provide? What are the pros and cons?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What is your experience of flexible working? Does your company promote a good model of flexible working? Has flexible working worked for you?