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The Government’s plans for the future of flexible working: The ‘Making Flexible Working the Default’ consultation and our next steps

Sam Boyle, Policy Officer, Business Disability Forum

A woman at a laptop

The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically changed the way that most of us work. Before Covid, it was extremely common for employees to say that they (at least contractually!) did a ‘nine-to-five’ day at the office, five days a week. Since March 2020, fewer of us would say that this is an accurate portrayal of our working lives.

For many staff, the injection of flexibility into their jobs as a result of the pandemic has been a blessing rather than a curse. For some disabled people in particular, the ability to structure working days around appointments and work when they are in their best health has been a vital lifeline. Indeed, many disabled people had been requesting flexibility from employers years before the pandemic struck.

There is no doubt that changes to the labour market have been popular with many employers and workers up and down the country. According to research from Microsoft, 71% of UK workers want flexible work options to remain post Covid, whilst research from CBI before the pandemic showed that most businesses believed that having a flexible labour market was crucial to being competitive.

The evidence is clear: most people want to be able to work flexibly.

To this end, the Government has launched a consultation looking at the possibility of making flexible working the default across Great Britain. The commitment to a consultation actually preceded the coronavirus pandemic with the Conservative Party making it a key pledge in their 2019 General Election manifesto. The consultation opened near the end of September and closes on 1 December.

What changes is the Government proposing?

The Government has suggested that the balance between employers and employees is weighted too heavily in favour of employers. They acknowledge that employers’ experiences of flexible working have changed dramatically since the ‘Right to Request’ flexible working originally came in and that the law has not kept pace with modern working practices.

The Government want feedback on the following proposals, which they say seek to readdress the balance:

  • To make the right to a statutory request for flexible working a ‘day one’ right for all employees, rather than being available to employees only after they have completed 26 weeks of continuous service.
  • To address whether the eight business reasons for refusing a flexible working request remain valid and relevant to modern working practices.
  • Whether the legislation should change so that employers are required to explain how they have looked at providing alternative adjustments for staff if they are unable to accept a flexible working request.
  • Whether the number of flexible working requests permitted each year should be increased and if so, how many should be legally allowed within that timeframe.
  • To promote awareness of employees’ existing right to make time limited flexible working requests.

How could the proposals affect employers and employees?

Although the proposals do not seek to prevent employers from being able to turn down a flexible working request, they do have the potential to change the relationship between businesses and their staff.

Depending on what feedback the Government receives (and how they respond to it), it is conceivable that employees could request to work flexibly from the moment they start a job, be able to make multiple (possibly unlimited) requests for flexible working each year and require their employer to demonstrate that they have considered alternative adjustments to their work patterns (if they are unable to accommodate the original request for flexible working).

Arguably, the biggest change proposed in the consultation is the ‘day one’ right to request flexible working. This would mean that approximately another 2.2 million people would be able to make a flexible working request.

The Government hopes that this will lead to a culture change where employers will actively consider flexible working as part of their recruitment process. They also believe that the ‘day one’ right would encourage prospective employees to be proactive in asking a potential employer whether the role offers flexible hours (for example, a job applicant may want to ask an employer whether they will accept a flexible working request during an interview).

The possible impact of such a change on disabled people is of paramount importance to us to consider and get your views on throughout the consultation process. Our Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey in 2019 showed that flexible and home working were two of the most requested types of adjustments from disabled employees.

If the Government seriously wants to tackle the disability employment gap, then flexible working will be a crucial tool in our country’s armoury. Therefore, we want to make sure that the proposals get the balance right.

What are our next steps?

We want to hear from our members about the proposals. We want to know if they are practical and sensible and if they are, whether they are ambitious enough. We particularly want to hear from disabled employees about what the proposals would mean to them.

We will be formally responding to the consultation, and we will be reaching out to members and disabled employees in due course to inform our response.

In the meantime, please do get in touch if you have any questions or thoughts on the proposals by contacting us at policy@businessdisabilityforum.org.uk

You can read more about the consultation here: gov.uk/government/consultations/making-flexible-working-the-default

 

 

 

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