Leadership   //   December 6, 2022  ■  5 min read

Flexible working will become part of U.K. law. Here’s what to know

The U.K. government yesterday gifted an early Christmas present to millions of workers by proposing a new law that will grant the right to ask for part-time hours or home-working arrangements from the first day of a new job. 

Additionally, approximately 1.5 million low-paid workers — such as those operating in the gig economy, plus students and carers — would be free to supplement their incomes by taking on second jobs and be protected against restrictive “exclusivity clauses.”

Ministers said the plan was “to make flexible working the default.” But will U.K. employers be muttering “humbug” at the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill?

Reactions to the prospective bill have been mixed. Some groups — including trade unions — have applauded it as a critical evolution to ways of working. Others have complained it doesn’t go far enough or has too much wiggle room for employers.

Here’s a breakdown of what it means:

What does the bill mean for employees?

The legislation, which is working its way through parliament (no timescale has been given), would mean that employees will no longer have to wait 26 weeks before requesting flexible working arrangements. Instead, they can ask on their first day. 

However, employers are not — currently — obliged to agree to the requests, but would be urged to discuss options before turning them down. The proposed law will allow employees to make two requests within a year.

What does the bill mean for employers?

In theory, when a flexible working request is submitted, employers must consult with workers and explore alternative options and ways they could accommodate the requested flexibility before rejecting it. For instance, if it were unfeasible to change a person’s working hours on all their days, perhaps tweaks could be made on some days.

What has been the reaction to the proposed legislation?

Helen Sachdev, director of WOMBA (Work, Me and the Baby), an organizational and executive coaching practice specializing in building trust and inclusion, welcomed the updated Flexible Working Bill. She said that making flexible working the default model would “empower working parents” and create more inclusive organizations and communities. 

“Flexibility allows parents — both mums and dads — to manage their time between work and home requirements,” Sachdev added. “It reduces the need to choose between caring for family and having a career.”

However, others believe, while well-intentioned, the proposed law may cause more headaches. Molly Johnson-Jones, founder and CEO of Flexa Careers, a global directory for verified flexible companies, said the new Flexible Working legislation looked “good on paper” but would “be riddled with issues” in practice.

“Giving people the right to request flexible working from their first day of employment doesn’t make a jot of difference when the reality of ways of working often aren’t revealed ’til much later,” she said.

So if an employer didn’t uphold this, what would be the consequences?

Like a lot of new wide-reaching legislation, the devil is often in the details. While it isn’t likely to capsize existing employment policies, it could create challenges around return-to-office mandates, stressed Simon Roderick, managing director of Fram Search, a U.K.-based financial recruitment organization. And it could be a major headache for human resources teams and managers. “[They] will have legitimate concerns with government interference if we end up with a situation where office attendance must be justified,” said Roderick.

That employers are not legally obliged to respond to the requests for flexible working could “create tension” from the first day of a job, too, Johnson-Jones added. “This will leave workers with caring responsibilities or disabilities — who start new jobs in good faith that their flexible working needs will be accommodated — in hugely precarious positions if their requests end up being turned down,” she said.

The Flexa Careers CEO argued that the proposed bill would “further muddy the waters around flexibility” at a time when “countless job seekers” relied on flexible working. “What they need is legislation that obligates companies to be transparent and upfront about where they stand on the matter — and to stick to their word,” Johnson-Jones added.

Others, however, believe the law — despite its vagueness — is an important step in the normalization of flexible working. Ryan Hopkins, future of well-being lead at Deloitte, added that it may even spur employers to move with the times. “There are two types of employers: those embracing flexibility, and those in denial,” Hopkins said.

How might the Flexible Working Bill impact attraction and retention of talent?

Hopkins said he believes those organizations that embrace the new era of working flexibility will be long-term winners. “[Employers] that get this [flexible working] right will open themselves up to the most diverse talent pool the world has ever seen, and the top talent at the less-flexible organizations will jump ship,” he added.

Others said they believe that businesses have no choice but to be proactive when it comes to incorporating flexibility into their policies and giving new hires permission to request it without fear of reprisals. “Despite the recession, employers are still struggling to fill vacancies, and so it’s not so much a question of whether HR should offer flexible working from day one or not,” said Anna Rasmussen, founder and CEO of performance management software company OpenBlend. “There’s an actual need to do so to attract and retain the best talent.”

Sof Socratous, head of northwest Europe for Poly Hybrid Work Solutions at tech giant HP, agreed. “The onus is now on employers to enable their workforce … [and] ensure total equality between home and office workers,” he said.

If, for example, remote or hybrid workers were missing out on training and career opportunities compared to office or full-time workers, it would likely “risk workplace equality going backwards,” said Socratous. “It could also see organizations swept aside by another Great Resignation wave, as employees quit to pursue new, more flexible jobs and careers,” he added.