Flexible working: Are you ready for the deluge of requests from your employees?

Posted on: May 18th, 2021

Current indications from Downing Street are that the “work from home if you can” advice is likely to be lifted from 21st June. In anticipation of this, employees may be rushing to put in their requests to work from home on a more permanent basis. Employers will want to be ready to deal with these requests in good time and to pre-empt any disagreements where the arrangement hasn’t been working so well for the organisation.

Employers should start to consider whether they make permanent some of the arrangements that have worked well, or whether they want to insist on a return to the pre-covid working patterns.  And as the world opens up, you might also find that people ask for more varied working patterns, such as one which involves them moving further away from the office if they no longer go in every day, or even abroad. Some might like the idea of working in a more agile fashion because they’ve become used to working outside of the normal 9-5 when they were forced to home school and like the idea now of being able to work whenever suits them.

So should this all be formalised now by asking everyone to make a flexible working request? Of course, if the current arrangement is working for everyone then you don’t have to insist that they follow the formal process of making a request, and you might even prefer it to be fluid for the next few months before settling on a permanent working pattern.

The advantage to asking everyone to apply via an official flexible working request is that the arrangement is locked in, and the employee is only able to make one request every 12 months so you have certainty for at least that time.

Also, it will help in those situations where working from home has been possible during the pandemic but would not be ideal when all the restrictions are lifted. After June, you will be relying on the eight acceptable reasons for declining a flexible working request, rather than the need to follow government instructions. The balance will therefore shift away from what is right for the employee, and back towards what works for the organisation.

Your considerations for whether the working pattern works or not, does not need to take into account the personal circumstances of the employee. So whilst it might suit their work life balance to be able to work from home, or work flexible hours, or work from a different part of the country; those factors are largely irrelevant to whether you can accept or refuse the request. The considerations purely relate to the impact on the business.

The employee will of course have just gone through a trial period lasting months, so you will at least have concrete evidence of the impact of that working pattern on productivity, client relations, pressure on colleagues etc. The employer will need to demonstrate that whilst it is possible to work from home or work agile hours, it is second best to being in the office or having regular hours, and now that it is not obliged to facilitate home working, it isn’t going to. So it might in fact be easier to refuse someone’s flexible working request come June but you should start the communications now if you foresee that it’s going to come as a surprise to your employees.

What happens then if you have a flood of requests in anticipation of the relaxation of the rules? Flexible working requests can be dealt with on a first come, first served basis. It is not a case of setting a precedent with the first one and having to then say yes to all that follow. So if you think you can accommodate 3 people working from home on Friday but not all 6 of the team then you can start to refuse applications once the first 3 have been accepted even if employee no.4 has a compelling reason to want Fridays at home. Again, the more you can pre-empt by being clear about your requirements for having people based in particular locations at particular times, and your expectation of presenteeism in the office, hopefully the more accommodating and amenable the requests will be as there will be an understanding that the needs of the job come first.