Proposed changes to employee rights, to legalise flexible working requests on the first day of a new job, must work for businesses and employees alike, says Niamh Kelly of The HR Dept Shropshire, Wrexham and Chester.

The SME human resources outsourcing expert has broadly welcomed a Government move to speed up the process of giving employees more flexibility around working hours and location.

But the company, (part of the group which provides support to more than 6,500 SMEs around the UK), said the arrangement needs to work for businesses too.
Arrangements such as job sharing, compacted hours, annualised hours or phased retirement may suit both male and female employees but may not be in the best interests of the business.

The HR Dept suggested that smaller businesses in particular may struggle to absorb resulting costs of communications, contractual and policy changes. And it also raised concerns over productivity, retention and recruitment, which can disproportionately affect smaller businesses when compared to their larger competitors.

Under the proposals, which were put out to consultation on Thursday, employees would no longer have to wait for six months before submitting requests for flexible working.

In turn, employers would have to respond to requests more quickly than the current maximum of three months, and offer reasonable justification for refusing any requests.

The consultation is part of the Government’s Good Work Plan programme, under which The HR Dept has represented the views of UK SMEs since it was set up in 2018.

Níamh Kelly - Director The HR Dept Shropshire, Wrexham and Chester, urged the Government to consider the implications for SMEs, which employ 60 per cent of the UK’s private sector staff.

“My concern is the impact any new rules will have on the smaller businesses we represent in the area,” Níamh said.

“While we of course recognise the benefits to employees of proposals to support better work life balance, there are always knock-on effects of new legislation and it is usually smaller businesses which feel those the most.

“Greater flexibility over working hours and place of work can of course help smaller businesses attract and retain the best employees,

“However there are also costs to consider, for example with internet security, health and safety implications once the home becomes the workplace, new technology requirements and additional training requirements.

“There may be resentment from those without children towards the flexibility given to those without. In a small business this is hard to manage.

“At an incredibly challenging time for small businesses in particular, with many struggling to stay afloat, changes need to be properly thought through before implementation in law.

“Currently, the rules allow for rejection of a flexible working application based on costs, administrative concerns, productivity or recruitment issues. Will these be seen in future as justifiable reasons for refusing a request?

“Business owners must balance an understanding that flexible working request laws consist of a right to request, not a right for the employee to have whatever they want. At present the onus is on the employee to demonstrate how a change in their employment contract would impact on the company. Hopefully that will remain the case.

“Owners must take these seriously though, or risk tribunal – particularly if care of children or disabled people are involved, bearing in mind the potential for discrimination claims.

“We are pleased that the Government is putting this out to consultation and The HR Dept will certainly have its say on the likely impact on SMEs nationwide.”
Níamh said it is important to recognise the variety of flexible working patterns available: “Hybrid working – a mixture of office and home-based working – is becoming more common but flexibility doesn’t just mean where you work. It includes giving the employee more say over which hours they work, supporting parents with requests at school holiday time, allowing flexibility for carers, giving breaks when required, potential job sharing, and so on.

“These ideas were first mooted in the 1980s. Maybe it’s time to redesign these concepts for the 2020s with SMEs at the forefront. As ever, it’s those smaller businesses which are least catered for in the national debate, even though they make up 60 per cent of our nation’s employees.”