The extension of the right to request flexible hours should be embraced rather than feared
Businesses concerned about changes to flexible working legislation won’t have to brace themselves for an influx of unreasonable requests, according to research by YouGov. At the start of April, the right to request flexible working was extended to parents of children up to the age of 16, but a survey of over 2,000 employees has revealed that only 17 per cent would consider making such a request, calming fears that small firms’ productivity could suffer. “Many parents are already happy with their current arrangements,” says Gillian Dowling, employment technical consultant at Croner. “This will come as a welcome relief for those employers worried about the effect it will have on their business.”
According to HR experts, 17 per cent seems a likely figure, but although it seems low, it accounts for 765,000 employees, enough potential requests to disrupt the working practices of thousands of SMEs. But the law allows flexibility for employers, too, says Dowling. “Do I really have to bend over backwards for my employees? The short answer is no: if there is a business reason why this isn't viable then a request does not have to be accepted,” she says.
If a request for flexible working is made, employers must follow a strict statutory procedure of meetings “within specific time limits” and be able to provide evidence for their reasons for refusal, says Dowling. “If they fail to do this then they are at risk of employment tribunal claims for detrimental treatment and compensation as well as claims for discrimination," she says.
A number of different surveys have concluded that around 90 per cent of employers do agree to the requests, “although, says Dowling, “some employers agree because of fears of discrimination claims.” This is an ironic twist, says Peter Thompson, a director at Workwise, a flexible working consultancy. “What the law literally tells employers to do is to discriminate against people that don’t have children,” he says. “Employers are being told to make a judgement about the value of people’s personal lives.”
The Equality and Human Rights Commission, the government body responsible for equality and wellbeing in the workplace, supports the right to request flexible hours. In its Working Better report, released at the beginning of April, it said that the right to request should be extended to all employees, not just those with children. “The fairest and most productive approach is to make it available to everyone…” it said.
Thompson agrees: “If you have a particular hobby and you choose perhaps to not have children your employer is being told by this legislation that you have no right to request flexible working even if it assists your work-life balance because somehow that’s not as important as having children,” he says.
So how should companies react? Employers are shooting themselves in the foot by only responding to requests on a case-by-case basis, says Thompson. “Employers see this as a piece of bureaucracy, as government interference. And unfortunately because it’s promoted as family-friendly legislation, that’s inevitably the way it gets seen. But all the evidence suggests that people who work flexibly are more productive and more loyal to the business. This isn’t family-friendly legislation but business-friendly legislation.”
It’s about changing the mindset of how you measure performance, says Ken Beaumont, founder of the consultancy Workforce Logistics. “If you’ve got people under your nose, maybe we kid ourselves that we know how well they are working: we can see them, therefore we know what we’re doing,” he says. “But if I’ve got a pile of stuff to do on my desk it doesn’t matter whether I do it at home or in the office. You’ve got to measure output. Quality and volume are the output measures.”
Beaumont likens unenlightened management of working practices with the “old style of football” played a hundred years ago, when “eleven players played 42 games a season”. These days, he says, clubs like “Chelsea will have 48 players to play the whole season, with different combinations of skills. The more players you have, the easier it is to be flexible.”
A request for flexible working can seem increasingly relevant during recession, adds Dowling. "Although it can be seen as an extra burden on employers to deal with these requests, if the most common request for flexible working continues to be a request for reduced hours, many employers will agree in these recession-hit times," she says.
Agreeing to greater levels of flexibility can lead to disaffection, warns Thompson. A mother or father returning from maternity or paternity leave often requests part-time, or more flexible hours. “Six months later, a few adjustments mean that they are doing the whole job just as productively over three days than they were previously doing it over five. They think, is this fair? It begs the question, what do we pay for?” says Thompson. “Most jobs we pay for people’s time rather than their output. It’s anti-productivity. If you pay by the hour the longer you take to do the job the more you get paid.”
We should, says Thompson, start to think of employees as a self-employed supplier of a service. Only then can you “start paying for output, not time.” The distinction between self-employed contractors and employees is blurring, he says. “If you reward people for results then flexible working really starts to come into its own.”
Posted 16 April 2009 : Director.co.uk