What do new flexible working rules mean for your small business?

New rules mean that 20 million employees now have the right to request flexible working.

The government’s extension means that almost every employee now has the right to ask their employer to change their working patterns. But what does this mean in practice, and what does your small business need to do?

What is flexible working?

Flexible working simply means an agreed change to an employee’s working pattern. This could take various different forms, but tends to involve part-time work, different working hours, working from home, or job sharing.

Who can apply for it?

As a result of the changes to the law, every employee with 26 weeks’ or more service now has the right to request flexible working. Previously this right was reserved for parents or carers.

Do I have to grant flexible working?

No. The new rights mean only that employees can apply for flexible working, not that they must necessarily be granted it. There are eight grounds on which you might legally be able to refuse flexible working. These are:

  • An unacceptable burden of additional costs
  • An inability to reorganise work among existing staff
  • An inability to recruit additional staff
  • A detrimental impact on quality
  • A detrimental impact on the business’ ability to meet customer demand
  • A detrimental impact on performance
  • Insufficient work during the periods the employee proposes to work
  • Planned structural changes to the business that are incompatible with the proposed flexible working.

These reasons have not changed; these are the same grounds on which you could refuse a flexible working application under previous rules.

How should I deal with an application?

The law says that you must deal with applications in a “reasonable manner”. In practice, this means that you should hold a meeting with the employee to discuss their proposals, and that you should notify them of your decision as soon as possible – and at least within three months. If you decide not to grant the request, you must give a clear business case for doing so, citing one or more of the reasons listed above.

What if multiple employees apply for flexible working?

Employers are not legally obliged to make a “value judgement” about competing flexible working requests. Instead, each case must be considered on its merits. Requests should be considered in the order they are received. The government’s Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) recommends that employers might discuss the conflict with the relevant employees in order to come to a compromise and, when this is not possible, ask whether they would be happy to use a method of random selection.

If you are in any doubt about your obligations under the new rules, you should seek legal advice. You can also find further guidance from Acas on their website.

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