‘Tens of millions’ of workers could request predictable working patterns under government-backed bill

Experts say HR will face a challenge if the bill becomes law, but the benefits it could yield are ‘worth investing in’

Credit: Pakin Songmor/Getty Images

The government has backed a law giving workers the right to request predictable working patterns in a bid to combat “one-sided flexibility”. 

The Workers (Predictable Terms and Conditions) Bill, introduced by Blackpool South MP Scott Benton, aims to give workers – predominantly those on zero hours or in the gig economy – and agency workers the right to request more predictable terms and conditions of work.

The bill, which is currently at the committee stage in parliament, will give all workers and employees a right to request changes twice a year, but only if they have worked for their employer for a “set period of time”. 

Employers will have the option to refuse the request on specific grounds.

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Plugging the labour shortage

Brigitte Weaver, associate at Katten UK, said businesses currently hold the “upper hand” on flexibility, as zero-hours workers have “no idea” when work may or may not come up. 

The bill may “plug the current labour shortage” by encouraging people back into work – especially those over 50 – and help working parents, she noted, but she was sceptical about its ability to make long-standing change. “The commentary around this bill being ‘game changing for the gig economy and zero-hours workers’ is perhaps an overstatement,” said Weaver. 

“It’s absolutely crucial to note that this bill, if passed, provides only for the right to ask for a predictable working pattern and not the right to a predictable working pattern.”  

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The government has estimated that, if approved by parliament, the law could impact tens of millions of workers across the UK, as many were “left waiting, unable to get on with their lives” in case a shift becomes available. 

If an existing pattern lacks certainty in terms of how many hours they work, they will be able to make a formal application to change their working pattern. 

But it also outlined that employers wishing to refuse a request can do so for several reasons, such as the burden of additional costs to make changes, or because of insufficient work at times when the employee proposes to work.

Will HR’s workload increase?

Because the final decision will rest with the employer, Sarah Loates, director at Loates Business Solutions, said HR would have more on their plate. “[People professionals] can expect an increased workload, particularly in businesses with seasonal variations or relying heavily on casual workers,” she warned, adding that HR should “get ahead of this” to ensure line managers know how to manage such requests.

However, Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, pointed out that the working patterns of many atypical workers, including some on zero-hours contracts, in reality varied very little. “This means it should be relatively easy for them to be moved to more stable working arrangements,” he said, adding that employers would benefit from “increased staff engagement and commitment”. 

According to Nicola Smith, interim chief executive at Timewise, HR leaders have a “great challenge ahead of them”, as they must think through ways for frontline employees to input their work-life needs and preferences, and have good advance notice of their working patterns. 

“Developments in rostering systems and shift swapping apps can assist with this, but what's critical is a change in mindset from organisations – to find working arrangements that work for employees as well as businesses,” said Smith. 

“It is complex, it takes time, but – as we have proved in our pilots in nursing, construction and teaching – it’s absolutely doable, and the benefits of a happier, healthier, more loyal workforce are worth investing in.”

The bill, revealed on 3 February, follows Matthew Taylor’s 2017 review of modern working practices and the gig economy, which recommended the introduction of this policy in an effort to scrap “one-sided flexibility”. 

It also follows a raft of policies introduced by the government to further support workers rights, which include: