Flexible working on the rise

2004

New rights introduced a year ago in the UK giving the parents of young children the right to request flexible working arrangements have worked well so far and most HR practitioners want the right to be extended to all employees.

But more than four out of ten organisations have already gone further than the 2003 legislation, making flexible working opportunities available to all employees.

Since April 2003, employees with children under six years old (18 where the child is disabled) have had a legal right to request changes in their working hours or to ask to work from home - and to have their request seriously considered.

A review of the first year of legislation by IRS Employment Review suggests that seven out of ten employers have received at least one request from an employee to change their working patterns since the new law came into effect.

The survey of 69 public and private sector organisations found that more than four out of ten employers (42 per cent) have agreed to meet flexible working requests as submitted, while more than half (54 per cent) offered compromise arrangements to accommodate business needs.

But almost three out of ten employers (28 per cent) has rejected a request for flexible working.

The survey found that the introduction of flexible working opportunities in almost half of organisations has been in response to the legal changes. Nearly three-quarters of organisations operate a formal flexible working policy, but the majority had to alter policies to meet the 2003 legal changes.

Almost half the employers surveyed have introduced flexible working as a result of employee demand.

But significantly, nearly half of employers (45 per cent) make flexible working available to all their employees. Almost one in three (28 per cent) make it available to staff in line with statutory requirements, while a quarter (26 per cent) base their decision on an individual employee's circumstances.

The reasons for going beyond the letter of the law are clear. More than half of the organisations polled (56 per cent) always or sometimes - depending on the nature of the job - promote their flexible working opportunities when recruiting staff, suggesting that the majority regard such arrangements as effective labour market tools.

A similar number also report that improved staff retention is one of the top three main objectives for introducing flexible working, while more than a third believe that flexible working is adopted to make the organisation more attractive to potential employees. This is particularly true of the public sector, where more than eight out of ten organisations cite flexible working also emerges as a key recruitment and retention weapon.

Where organisations were resistant to flexible working, almost half were worried about potential negative affect of flexible working on customer service. Management resistance to change was cited by more than a third (36 per cent) of respondents; and work-scheduling problems and greater pressure on other workers were highly rated by a third of those surveyed.

Over the next three years, six out of ten employers predict that part-time working will see the fastest growth within their organisations. Four out of ten believe that full or partial home-working will become more widespread, couples with variable starting and/or finishing times and temporarily reduced hours.

IRS Employment Review managing editor Mark Crail said that the first year of the new legislation has gone relatively smoothly.

"More than eight in 10 employers have developed or will be developing guidelines in the next 12 months to help managers handle requests for flexible working," he said. "This commitment to help get the policy right, indicates that employers recognise the benefits it can bring to an organisation.

"However, the next few years might prove more difficult if the predictions of our survey respondents are correct. The challenge for employers will be how they handle a larger volume of requests, while balancing employee demands and business requirements. It is possible that more applicants will be unhappy with the outcome.

"Many employers are now recognising that a policy, which brings perceived benefits to one section of workforce also risks alienating other employees. It is no surprise that so many - almost 80% - want to extend rights to all employees to achieve a better work-life balance. The survey’s findings reinforce the view that flexible working can no longer be seen simply as the “family-friendly” option."