What could extended flexible hours mean for employers?

Extensions to the overall mechanics of flexible working are a daunting possibility for employers

Just as employers are preparing for next month’s extension of the right to request flexible working to carers of adults, under the terms of the Work and Families Act 2006, children’s minister Beverley Hughes has come out arguing for that right to be given to all employees.

Her views, which are due to be published in May by the Institute for Public Policy Research within a collection of essays entitled Politics for a new generation: The progressive moment, have left many employers pondering on the impact this would have. The right to request flexible working currently only applies to working parents with children aged under 5 years or, if disabled, up to 18 years.

While Hughes’ idea is seen as a radical change in working practices for some organisations, in others it is already a common feature. BT, for example, has enabled staff to work flexibly since 1986, and views the perk as a key retention tool. Caroline Waters, director of BT people and policy, claims that the argument that such arrangements are not appropriate for organisations that operate outside of standard hours is no longer valid in many cases. “There are very few employers now who are restricted by nine-to-five hours. There are parts of any job that can be done on a flexible basis.”

More than 90% of employers have granted employees’ requests to work more flexibly under current legislation, according to Susan Anderson, director of HR policy at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). She adds that any further extensions should be phased in.

The ability to achieve a good work-life balance is rising up many employees’ wish-lists, so offering a strong flexible working policy may help to boost recruitment and retention. Angela O’Connor, chief people officer at the National Policing Improvement Agency, said: “The new generation of workers we’ve got have a different perspective on life and if we are going to capture talent we need to be able to provide flexible working opportunities.”

However, she recognised that not all staff would be able to work flexibly, for example, those who work in courts or who are involved in police investigations. So while the blanket approval of all requests can restrict an organisation, a wholesale refusal to consider any requests will also have a negative impact.

But the “right to request” under current law, means simply that and not all requests have to be granted.

Should this right to request be extended to all, employers could face potential headaches in trying to comply, particularly if they are to avoid being seen as discriminatory. Tim Randles, legal executive and head of employment at the Guildford office of Laytons Solicitors, warned: “Inevitably if everybody is looking for flexible working, there’s going to be a group of workers within every organisation that has a [seemingly] stronger claim than [others].”