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Millions Of Employees Braced For Flexible Working Bill


Millions of Brits will be handed a silver bullet for the return to office debate this week, as the new Flexible Working bill arrives to give workers more control over their working hours.

Under the new legislation, which will come into force on April 6, staff can request flexible arrangements from their very first day on the job.

The bill will act as a spring clean for the UK workforce, which is suffering from low participation due to heightened stress and burnout. With work-life balance in vogue among workers, a Slack survey has found that 55% of employees plan to take advantage of the rule change.

The shift represents a huge opportunity for companies to adopt flexible working this year to strengthen their talent and recruitment strategy.

New flexible working rights for workers

April 6 marks a seismic shift in workplace dynamics. Previously, new hires had to wait 26 weeks before submitting a request.

However, from Saturday, workers will be able to ask for flexible work models including remote working or a four-day week as soon as they begin a role. They will also:

  • Be able to submit a request twice a year (previously once a year)
  • No longer need to explain how the flexible work request might affect the business
  • Get a response from employers in two months (previously three)

The rule change could help millions of employees to access flexible working. According to the Slack survey, 33% of company employees at SMEs are not able to work remotely.

The new laws are already spiking change, however. Research from Startups shows that flexible working will explode in 2024, as 66% of companies plan to adopt it this year.

Progressive firms are specifically preparing for an influx of requests for the four-day week, where a 35-hour workweek is shortened into 28-hours with no pay cut. Research shows 12% of UK firms plan to adopt a four-day week in 2024, marking its increasing popularity with employees and employers.

Flexible bill is big opportunity for SMEs

UK SMEs currently lag behind large enterprises when it comes to flexible working. According to Slack, just 67% of workers at small companies have access to a flexible work model, compared to 81% of those at large firms.

This could be a matter of logistics. Certain jobs, such as wait staff or healthcare workers, cannot feasibly be done from home. But it could also be due to outdated remote or hybrid work policies that have failed to keep pace with workplace trends.

The positive employee response to the incoming bill should act as an impetus for SMEs to embrace the policy and its advantages for recruitment.

Two-thirds of respondents told Slack they would be more likely to apply for a job with flexible working, representing an easy win for attracting top talent away from less flexible employers.

There are also benefits for the existing workforce. Flexible working has evolved into a powerful employee benefit for improving work-life balance, particularly for parents or carers, and could be crucial for limiting staff turnover.

Jack Kennedy, Senior Economist at Indeed UK, says this businesses can also use flexible working to navigate record pay rises, which have threatened many business budgets. “Granting flexible arrangements is a viable alternative [to salary increases]. Especially as many workers value flexible working in lieu of pay rises.”

Bill could backpedal on return to office

Under the Flexible Working bill, bosses will still be able to reject a flexible work request if they have a good business reason. However, the new laws mean they will also be required to explain why they have denied an application.

According to Slack, the main concerns that have caused employers to decline requests for flexible work are that it may lower productivity (18%) and work quality levels (16%).

Surprisingly, the Slack survey reveals that, rather than fostering laziness, flexiwork may motivate employees towards greater efficiency. 75% of respondents said they believe the new laws will lead to improved productivity, while 69% think it will help company growth.

The findings have big repercussions for the debate around Return to Office (RTO) policies; a discussion that has gained significant traction in the past six months.

In order to entice staff back to the workplace, some employers have publicly rubbished remote work. Dell told staff they’d lose out on promotions if they continued to work from home, while Boots demanded admin staff work in-office five days per week.

Post-bill, and lacking a proper defence for their implementation, companies might find their RTO triggers a spike in flexible work requests.

Nikolaz Foucaud is EMEA Managing Director at Coursera, an online course provider. Foucaud advises: “If return-to-office mandates are draconian, UK businesses risk losing access to the best people for the job.”

How to respond if an employee requests flexible work

Gerard O’Hare is Legal Director at WorkNest, an employment consultancy firm. O’Hare says employers should ensure their Flexible Working policy is in line with the new rules by reviewing consultation procedures and response times.

Managers should also define which roles are or are not suitable for flexible work, as having a clear-cut policy in place will make it easier to defend a request refusal or an RTO.

“There may well be a spike in the number of requests for flexible working,” says O’Hare. “Given the decision on whether to accept or decline a request remains with the employer, it might not result in many more successful applications.

“However, [it] should help open a constructive dialogue between an employer and an employee about flexible working practices for the 21st century.”

Interested in switching to more flexible hours this year? Read our guide on how to make a flexible work request.

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