Is the Flexible Working Bill as good as it looks?

The Flexible Working Bill that recently passed has been a long time coming and workers across the country are delighted. Essentially, it means that employees will be entitled to request changes to their working hours, times or place or work from the moment they start a new job instead of waiting the standard 26 weeks. This will be the case as soon as the bill becomes law in 2024. Managers will also have to give adequate reasoning for rejecting a claim which and the aim is to make flexible working achievable for all. 

The UK’s minister for small business Kevin Hollinrake has said of the new law, “Giving staff more say over their working pattern makes for happier employees and more productive businesses. Put simply, it’s a no-brainer. Greater flexibility over where, when, and how people work is an integral part of our plan to make the UK the best place in the world to work.”

Sounds great in theory but is it too good to be true? 

Flexible by name but not always by nature 

The name of the new bill is misleading. Having the word ‘flexible’ in the name, suggests that companies will now be required to grant every flexible request when that isn’t always the case. Although employees will now be able to make a request a lot sooner into a job, it can still be rejected. Companies will still be able to hide behind some vague hints of flexibility without fully committing to anything. This could be devastating to jobseekers who decide to start a new role once this bill is in place, believing that their request will be granted and then finding themselves stuck if it’s rejected. The new law does not require companies to be transparent about their flexible policies, which would be a lot more helpful to jobseekers.

Reasons for rejection

One of the biggest issues that some employees have with the new bill is that there has been no change to the business reasons that employers can use to reject a request. Companies who have been churning out the same excuses to deny workers this basic request can continue to do so – they just must appear to investigate alternative options first. 

There are eight statutory grounds for refusing a flexible working request. These are:

·       extra costs that will damage the business

·       the work cannot be reorganised among other staff

·       people cannot be recruited to do the work

·       flexible working will affect quality and performance

·       the business will not be able to meet customer demand

·       there’s a lack of work to do during the proposed working times

·       the business is planning changes to the workforce

Currently, employers can reject flexible working, while using one of the above reasons and no other explanation. 

A study by the Trades Unions Congress (TUC) found that half of new fathers and employees on lower incomes – usually less than £40,000 – are less likely to have their requests accepted. When the new bill comes in as law, the reasons won’t change. It basically means that the same people will face rejection, just sooner.

A (baby) step in the right direction

It’s not great but it’s not awful either. We can’t really consider it a win for those looking for flexible working. But it’s a (baby) step in the right direction. We all know that flexible working shouldn’t be a perk. It’s a basic right and it’s the only way that many people in the UK are able to work at all. 

The bill is a good step in normalising flexible working but it isn’t enough to cause a celebration.

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