Supporters of flexible working were excited in July by the announcement that the Flexible Working Bill had received Royal Assent, paving the way for it to be incorporated into the law of the land. Certainly, the British government was keen to publicize the benefits of the bill, promising that it would mean workers across the country more freedom and control over the way they work.
Unfortunately, the truth is that the new bill leaves much to be desired and is unlikely to help bring positive momentum to the flexible working revolution.
The content of the invoice
The first thing to mention is that this is not technically a new law, but an amendment to existing law. Employment Rights Act 1996. And rather than granting workers a new right to flexible working, the main aim of the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Act 2023 – to give it its full title – is to make changes to statutory law existing employees to request flexible working. The law is unlikely to take effect before mid-2024, but what exactly are these changes and how will they benefit workers?
The first change is to increase the number of times an employee can request to move to a flexible working arrangement. Currently, employees can only make one request per 12-month period. This number will increase to two.
Second, employees can expect faster results, since employers will now only have two months to review and respond to a request, instead of three under current law.
Third, employees will no longer be required to explain the impact their request will have or offer suggestions on how to mitigate any impact when requesting flexible working.
It is also expected that employees will be able to request flexible working from the first day of their employment, instead of having to wait 26 weeks before requesting it. However, this is not in the Act itself, but will be set out in secondary legislation which is expected to come into force at the same time as the Act.
But why has the UK government made these changes to this process? Is there such a demand for flexible working?
The flexible working revolution
The term “flexible working” is broad. It’s not just about working from home or remotely, but also having flexible start and finish times that suit the needs of the employee. Providing flexibility aims to reduce stress and provide a better work-life balance, and employers may consider offering it to attract new talent or retain existing staff.
Most research points to a huge, untapped demand for more flexible working arrangements. For example, LinkedIn data indicates that the demand for remote work (a flexible, but also common, form of work) far exceeds the supply of remote work positions.
Remote work is particularly popular because it gives workers the choice to live wherever they want, without limiting their career prospects. Remote workers use it to spend more time with family instead of commuting, to live closer to loved ones, or to travel to different countries while still maintaining their jobs.
But the benefits of remote work also extend to employers. Companies that adopt distributed workforce models have a much larger talent pool, including skilled workers living overseas. Companies can build international work teams as a first step to enter new markets or offer 24-hour services to customers in different time zones.
Our own research on the topic, the 2023 Remote Workforce Report, highlighted several benefits offered by remote work. Based on a survey of 1,000 decision-makers around the world, the report reveals that 69% of employers who adopted remote working saw increased staff retention, while 57% said it was easier to hire and retain talent with a remote workforce. Additionally, 72% of employers with an international remote workforce reported that productivity increased – challenging the common assumption that remote work is less productive.
Increasing productivity and generating savings through increased retention are a win-win for companies that embrace remote work. But it can also be a competitive advantage: As more workers seek flexible work arrangements, offering workers that flexibility can help attract talent from competitors.
In this context, should the bill on flexible working be considered a major step forward? Not necessarily.
A missed opportunity
The truth is that the legislative changes made to the Act are not enough to have a real impact on workers. The law merely tweaks an existing process for requesting flexible working – an unnecessarily bureaucratic and extremely slow process (it should take no more than two weeks for an employer to consult relevant stakeholders about flexible arrangements, let alone two months).
A key issue is that the law still gives employers the right to reject an employee’s request. The fact that a worker can now make multiple requests per year is unlikely to sway an employer who is skeptical about the benefits of flexible working.
Businesses could also face a bureaucratic headache if multiple employees all make flexible working requests, as each request will need to be handled individually. Adopting simple company-wide policies for flexible working could help organizations avoid this time-consuming paperwork.
The UK government should have looked to its European peers who have established more flexible rights for workers. In the Netherlands, it is particularly difficult for employers to reject a request for flexible working, while in Finland, workers have the right to start or finish their work three hours earlier or later than their scheduled hours. usual work and most employees can choose where and when they work. at least 50% of their working time.
Although the flexible working bill represents something of a missed opportunity, all is not lost. The flexible working revolution is underway; More and more companies are recognizing this trend and offering more flexible options to their workers in order to attract talent and retain skilled workers. It is these forward-looking companies that will get ahead of the competition.