Flexible working bill: can it solve existing issues?

People Management explores the proposed legislation, its potential impact and possible limitations

Credit: Vadym Pastukh/iStockphoto/Getty Images

A bill currently going through parliament could change worker rights, and grant them the freedom to request flexible working from day one of their employment.

The Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill, first introduced by MP Yasmin Qureshi, champions flexibility and aims to allow workers the right to request variations to particular terms and conditions of employment, including working hours, times and locations.

The bill, which had its second reading in the Commons on Friday 28 October, would – if passed into law – introduce a requirement for employers to consult with employees before rejecting their flexible working request, as well as allowing employees to make two requests in a 12-month period as opposed to one.

The employer decision period would also be reduced from three months to two months, and the requirement for employees to explain the impact on the organisation if they switched to flexible working would be removed.

But would the bill rectify existing problems? People Management asked HR and legal experts for their take.

Will this legislation change be enough to make a difference?

The CIPD has been campaigning for organisations and the government to make the right to request flexible working a day one right. Claire McCartney, senior policy adviser at the CIPD, says it would “open up opportunities more fairly” for all employees, “including those who aren’t able to work remotely”.

“We also think this legislation change will send an important signal to organisations that they need to create more opportunities around flexible working, to help recruit and retain a diverse pool of talent and to support broader business agility,” McCartney explains.

Indeed, Emily Charlesworth, HR technical consultant of AdviserPlus, highlights the bill’s usefulness for those with “specific needs” in the workplace. “The bill would be particularly beneficial for… parents and carers or those with disabilities, as it should make it easier for them to discuss the specifics of flexible arrangements at interview,” she says.

According to Idris Arshad, people and inclusion partner at St Christopher’s Hospice, the bill is likely to make a difference in less flexible businesses that will have to accept this new dynamic, but “it will not impact progressive organisations as much”, he says, adding that, after all, “decision making is left with organisations so it's ‘a wait and see’ if this is enough”. 

Yvonne Gallagher, employment partner at Harbottle & Lewis, explains that the bill does not create any absolute right to flexible working and, as a notable limitation, “the bill won’t address the problem that arises where employees want greater flexibility than the employer wishes to give – for example, fully remote working where an employer requires presence in the office, or significant time shifts or reductions in hours”. 

However, Gemma Dale, business lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, says that while the bill is “a step in the direction of progress”, it is “not enough to solve existing problems relating to the barriers to flexible working”.

Dale adds that the 26-week waiting period to make a request “has always been a barrier to flexible working” and “a requirement rooted in distrust with the assumption that employees need to somehow prove themselves a suitable worker before they can work in a flexible way”.

Should employers wait for the bill to come into play before taking action?

While the bill has not turned into legislation yet, McCartney says the CIPD has been encouraging organisations to “make the change now, wherever possible, to their internal policies and practices”.

“Our survey findings suggest that more than a third of organisations already offer the right to request flexible working from day one and we would encourage other organisations to follow this example if they want to enhance their reputation as an employer of choice,” she adds.

However, Alan Price, CEO of BrightHR, acknowledges that even among the businesses that have the capacity or resources to do so, “some will likely need time to absorb and understand the entitlements laid out in the bill”, as well as to “train teams and update policies and procedures”.

He warns: “It’s also important to remember that if employers introduce the bill now, they will likely form a contractual entitlement that must be adhered to. Should the bill later be dismissed, it will be difficult for employers to remove this as a contractual entitlement, so full consideration should be made before imposing any changes.”

What else needs to change in terms of flexibility arrangements, and what can HR do?

Encouraging strong communication from all sides is a key element throughout this process. Chris Preston, director and co-founder of The Culture Builders, says employers that fail to recognise that employees’ needs and expectations have changed over the last two years as a result of the Covid pandemic, where flexi-hours arrangements have become a priority, could “suffer from reduced productivity and high turnover”.

Echoing this, Charlesworth says: “In the current talent war, being transparent about flexible working arrangements could give a competitive advantage… if flexible working is not going to be an option, being open about this will avoid wasting time and disengaging new recruits.”

She also advises that “HR leaders need to prepare for what this may mean for their organisation and whether they need to review job ads and interview and onboarding processes to ensure they are prepared for the change if the bill is passed”.

Similarly, Gallagher emphasises that one consideration to keep in mind while preparing for the bill is that employees will be permitted to apply twice in a 12-month period for a change to working arrangements, and “HR departments may therefore have to deal with a greater volume of requests”.