Why employers must think carefully about flexible summer hours

Chris Phillips from Thorntons explains the legal ins and outs of a policy of shorter working weeks during the summer.

 

Lazy afternoons in the sun might soon become a regular Friday feature for PwC’s people after the global accountancy firm announced it is to offer summer working hours.

During June, July and August staff will be able to leave at lunchtime on a Friday and get a head start on their weekend. PwC is adopting the initiative following the success of a pilot scheme last year.

Not everyone is a fan, with Sir Alan Sugar lambasting the company’s decision as a “joke”, but in today’s tight labour market summer working hours could be a significant retention and recruitment tool.

As businesses continue to struggle with the Great Resignation prompted by the pandemic, and ongoing skills shortages amid Brexit, it has become an employee’s market. Businesses are more fluid than ever, with many continuing to allow people to work from home, fearing a “flexidus” if they are forced to return to the office against their will.

So could PwC’s headline grabber be the next thing in a climate where staff are in short supply and susceptible to having their heads turned?

Eligible employees have been able to make a statutory flexible working request for many years now. The right was first introduced in 2003by the Blair government to help parents with childcare responsibilities balance  work commitments around their life commitments. Since 2014, any employee with 26 weeks’ service can ask for flexible working, regardless of what they plan to do with their free time – they could be tinkering with antique clocks or improving their golf swing as far as the law is concerned. While an employer must deal with any request in a reasonable manner, they can also turn down a request where there is a valid business reason to do so.  But   once it has been agreed to, employees don’t have the automatic right to change their mind. It is regarded as a permanent change to the contract and any renewed request (to change back or to secure another different working pattern) can’t be made for at least 12 months after the original request

While this isn’t the same as summer working there can be unintended consequences when reduced hours are introduced. Care needs to be taken in devising and managing your approach as an employer.

Employers who are considering following in the footsteps of PwC need to ensure any such policy is implemented fairly and consistently too so its use is seen as beneficial rather than becoming a source of resentment.

The idea of shortening or flexing hours for staff over the summer is great in principle and, as long as it’s appropriate for that particular organisation and managed carefully, it can be a real win-win, helping employers to retain valued staff and allowing colleagues to feel more appreciated. They may also end up being more productive overall when they are at work despite working slightly fewer hours as can often be the experience with part time workers or those who job share. They will feel more rested and that they have achieved a better work-life balance.

However, as an employer, you need to make sure that it is going to be right for your business and the clients or users for whom a service needs to be provided.  It won’t be practical for every organisation and also won’t be suitable for every category of worker either. In some sectors, including my own, Friday afternoons can often coincide with completing transactions, for example, closing property purchases.

Second, if you do choose to introduce a policy you need to be clear what the parameters will be. That will include making clear that it is a temporary, non-contractual arrangement and subject always to business needs. Having a written policy setting out the key points makes sense and helps to avoid misunderstanding. It also minimises the risk of abuse and provides a stronger basis for managing any issues that do arise.

This might be especially  important for new starters over the summer period who think knocking off early on a Friday is the norm.  An effective policy, clearly communicated from the outset will minimise the risk of any misunderstanding.

With warmer weather around the corner, employers who are considering following in the footsteps of PwC need to ensure any such policy is implemented fairly and consistently too so its use is seen as beneficial rather than becoming a source of resentment.  It also makes sense to trial it first and review any feedback carefully to identify and resolve any issues early on.  Keeping any policy under regular review is always a good idea as circumstances can change.

*Chris Phillips is an employment partner and accredited employment law specialist at Thorntons.



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