More Midlands firms consider flexible working arrangements

Carolyn Brown

More than two thirds of middle market businesses in the Midlands and East Anglia are considering new flexible working options for their employees – but many worry about the management implications, according to a new survey commissioned by RSM.

The survey of middle market businesses, carried out by YouGov, found that over the next five years more than two thirds of respondents in the region are considering introducing flexible terms of employment, allowing workers to work outside 9 to 5 or increasing the use of remote working.

23% of firms in the Midlands said that they are happy with the flexible working arrangements they currently offer and have no plans to increase them, while four per cent said they were not looking to increase flexible working and three per cent said they didn’t know.

Broadly, employers appear to recognise the benefits of greater flexibility, with the region’s businesses saying it had a positive effect on efficiency (64%), worker engagement (63%) and productivity (also 63%).

However, some businesses expressed reservations about introducing more flexible working arrangements. Respondents identified barriers to flexibility such as the type of work on offer and a lack of technology. They also expressed concerns around employees exploiting the system and the effect of flexible working on team dynamics.

Employees who have 26 weeks or more of continuous service can, once a year, make a written request to their employer to change to work flexibly. Such a request can cover any flexible working arrangement such as the number of hours worked, the periods when hours are worked or the place of work – or a combination of all three.

The employer then has to provide a written decision within three months. If agreed, changes are made to the employee’s contract terms to reflect the new working arrangements.

The law recognises than an employer may have an entirely legitimate business reason for rejecting a request. However, employers must take care to ensure that they don’t breach the rules on a technicality, or, more importantly take a decision which may give rise to a Tribunal claim for discrimination.

Carolyn Brown, employment lawyer and head of RSM Client Legal Services, said: “Employers are becoming much more enlightened about the beneficial impact that flexible working arrangements can have on productivity, engagement and efficiency.

“Some larger employers are leading the way by offering employees much greater control over their working times and working patterns, and it’s highly likely that others will follow suit.

“However, the successful introduction of more flexible working options is not a given. Employers need to ensure they deal with flexible working requests in a prompt and reasonable manner, ensuring consistency in decisions. This can be a particular challenge for larger organisations with a centralised HR function, but it is very important to mitigate any risk of a claim being brought for discrimination.

“From a practical perspective, employers also need to ensure that managers are supported to manage team members that may work remotely or outside standard hours, in addition to providing support to the employees who are working flexibly.

“Employers should also be aware, that once a flexible working request is granted, it can then be difficult to row back from that arrangement when business circumstances change. It’s therefore important that any request is considered from a long-term perspective.”