How to follow the right procedure when dealing with flexible working requests

Jul 1, 2019 | Time Off Work

Previously employees who were parents or carers could request changes to their terms and conditions in the form of a flexible working request. But in 2014, the right to request flexible working was extended to all employees with at least 26 weeks’ service, and at the same time, the rather restrictive statutory procedure for considering flexible working requests was replaced by a more flexible requirement to use a “reasonable” procedure.
Although parents and carers remain the most likely groups to request flexible working, employers are receiving more requests now from other employees looking for a good work-life balance, and the value of more flexible working arrangements is becoming more commonly understood.
The procedure used doesn’t have to be as restrictive as it was previously, but it’s important to ensure any request is handled correctly. But what does a “reasonable” procedure actually look like? There are certain specific requirements, as well as practical things you can do to make the process as smooth and trouble-free as possible.

Specific requirements

There used to be a very specific timescale in terms of by when you must acknowledge a request and hold a meeting, by when you must respond, by when an appeal should be held and so on. This has now disappeared, and instead there is an overall time period of three months from the date the application is received to the date of the final decision. This obviously gives more flexibility, however in practice it should not normally take that long, and a reasonable employer would deal with a request promptly.
There was also previously a specific requirement to invite the employee to a formal meeting to discuss the request and to allow them to bring a colleague (unless you were prepared to agree the request without discussion). That specific requirement (which could sometimes trigger a more confrontational atmosphere than was necessary or conducive to constructive discussion and was more akin to disciplinary and grievance requirements) has now been removed. However in practice, a “reasonable” procedure must include a meeting to discuss the request, rather than making a decision without talking about it and exploring any concerns first.

Steps to take

If you receive a flexible working request you should do the following:

1. Check entitlements

Check whether the request comes under the statutory entitlement ie that the employee has the requisite 26 weeks’ service and is putting the request in formally. If they don’t, or are not, that doesn’t mean disregard it; as a matter of good practice and sensible commercial prioritisation, you should still explore whether you can accommodate them.

2. Hold a meeting

Invite the staff member to a meeting to discuss it with them. You could consider allowing them to bring a colleague with them for support if they wish, however if you feel this may provoke a more confrontational atmosphere you may decide not to do this. It is important to be consistent, however, so you shouldn’t decide whether to allow a colleague on a case-by-case basis (perhaps depending who the proposed colleague is!), and instead should decide upon a set approach that you will take. Many of our small business clients have opted to remove the right to be accompanied by a colleague as in practice they were finding employees were not utilising this right anyway.

3. Consider the impact

Make sure you explore the changes the employee is asking for and find out whether they’ve considered the impact their proposed change will have on the business. Sensible employees will have anticipated queries or concerns you may have, and will be ready with a solution.

4. Compromise

Flexible working discussions often result in compromise, so if there is a particular aspect of your employee’s request that concerns you, don’t dismiss the request out-of-hand, consider whether there is an alternative you could discuss with them. Finding a solution which works for both you and the employee is the best outcome all round.

5. Trial period

If you’re not sure whether a requested arrangement would work, you can discuss the possibility of a trial period with your employee, of say three or six months to test it out. There is a significant motivation for employees to accept trial periods, as if they can prove during their trial that the arrangement will not negatively impact on you as an employer, it obviously then becomes more difficult for the request to be ultimately refused. So perhaps consider trial periods only if you do intend to agree the request unless there are major hiccups uncovered.
In the event of a flexible working request, your aim as an employer should always be a constructive discussion and a genuine desire to explore whether the request or a compromise arrangement can be agreed.
If you would like further advice on flexible working procedures, do get in touch.