Proponents of flexible working were exhilarated in July by news that the Flexible Working Bill had received Royal Assent, paving the way for it to become part of the law of the land. Certainly, the UK government was keen to advertise the benefits of the bill, promising that it meant workers across the country would enjoy more freedom and control over the way they work.
Unfortunately, the truth is the new bill leaves much to be desired and is unlikely to contribute much positive momentum to the flexible work revolution.
The contents of the bill
The first thing to mention is that this is not technically a new law at all, but an amendment to the existing Employment Rights Act 1996. And rather than granting workers a new right to flexible work, the main purpose of the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Act 2023 – to give it its full title – is to make changes to the existing statutory right of employees to request flexible work. The Act is unlikely to come into force until mid-2024, but what exactly are these changes and how will they benefit workers?
The first change is to increase the number of times an employee can request switching to a flexible working arrangement. Currently, employees can only make one request in any 12-month period. This will increase to two.
Second, employees can expect faster outcomes, as employers will now only have two months to consider and respond to a request, instead of three under the current law.
Third, employees will no longer be required to explain what impact their request will have or need to offer suggestions for how to mitigate any impact when making a flexible work request.
It is also expected that employees will be able to make a flexible work request on day one of their job, instead of having to wait 26 weeks before asking. However, this is not contained in the Act itself, but will be set out in secondary legislation that is expected to come into force at the same time as the Act.
But why has the UK government made these amendments to this process? Is there that much demand for flexible work?
The flexible work revolution
The term “flexible work” is broad. It doesn’t just refer to working from home or working remotely, but also to having flexible start and stop times that suit an employee’s need. Offering flexibility is intended to reduce stress and offer a better work-life balance, and employers may consider offering it to attract new talent or retain existing staff.
Most research points to a huge, untapped demand for more flexible working arrangements. For instance, LinkedIn data indicated that the demand for remote work (just one form of flexible work, but also a common one) vastly outstrips the supply of remote work roles.
Remote work is particularly popular as it offers workers the choice to live wherever they choose, without limiting their career prospects. Remote workers use it to spend more time with their family instead of commuting, live closer to relatives, or travelling to different countries while remaining employed.
But the benefits of remote work also extend to employers. Businesses that adopt distributed workforce models have a much larger pool of talent available to them, including skilled workers living overseas. Companies can build international work teams as a first step to entering new markets or offer round-the-clock services to customers in different time zones.
Our own research on the topic, the 2023 Remote Workforce Report, highlighted several advantages offered by remote work. Based on a survey of 1,000 decision-makers around the world, the report found that 69% of employers who have adopted remote work experienced increased staff retention, while 57% stated it was easier to hire and retain talent with a remote workforce. Furthermore, 72% of employers with an international remote workforce said that productivity had increased – this challenges the common assumption that remote work is less productive.
Boosting productivity and generating cost-savings through increased retention are win-win for businesses that embrace remote work. But it can also be a competitive advantage: with more and more workers seeking flexible work arrangements, offering workers this flexibility can help attract talent away from competitors.
Given this context, should we view the flexible working bill as a major step forward? Not necessarily.
A missed opportunity
The truth is the legislative changes in the Act are not enough to have a real impact on workers. The Act is merely tweaking an existing process for requesting flexible work – a process that is needlessly bureaucratic and painstakingly slow (it should not take an employer more than two weeks to consult with relevant stakeholders regarding flexible arrangements, let alone two months).
A key problem is that the Act still ultimately gives employers the right to reject an employee’s request. The fact a worker can now make multiple requests a year is unlikely to sway an employer who is sceptical about the benefits of flexible work.
Businesses could also face a bureaucratic headache if multiple employees all make flexible working requests, as each request will need to be processed individually. Adopting simple company-wide policies for flexible work could help organisations avoid this time-consuming paperwork.
The UK government should have looked to European peers who have established more flexible rights for workers. It is particularly difficult in the Netherlands for employers to reject a flexible work request, while workers in Finland have the right to start or finish their work three hours earlier or later than their core working hours and most employees can choose where and when they work for at least 50% of their working hours.
So while the Flexible Working Bill is something of a missed opportunity, all is not lost. The flexible working revolution is marching on; more and more companies are recognising this trend and offering greater flexibility options to their workers in order to attract talent and retain skilled workers. It is these forward-looking companies that are going to race ahead of the competition.