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Government consultation on the future of flexible working

The government is consulting on five proposals which generally are designed to make flexible working accessible to the majority of employees.

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On 23 September the government launched a consultation to take views from individuals and businesses on its proposals to reform flexible working regulations. The government is consulting on five proposals which generally are designed to make flexible working accessible to the majority of employees.

These include extending the right to request flexible working from ‘day one’ of employment; reviewing the current eight business reasons that an employer can use to refuse a request; whether employers should be required to suggest alternatives; reviewing the administrative process that underpins the current right to request flexible working; and looking at requesting temporary arrangements.

The consultation comes  18 months into the pandemic and after many businesses were forced to allow their workforce to operate remotely.  Even after the government removed these regulations there was a gradual return with ‘hybrid working’ becoming more fashionable.   Consequently expectations and requests for flexible working have increased significantly leaving businesses wrestling  with the challenges of adapting to this new culture.

There have been  reports in the media of large employers hesitating to return to offices full time and a recent survey carried out by the BBC suggested that most people do not believe workers will return to the office full-time after the pandemic.

Indeed, the government’s Plan B under the Autumn and Winter plan for 2021 includes a possible return to mandatory home-working which is reported to be “one of the most effective measures available at reducing contacts, including associated transport and social interactions, which has a strong impact on transmission and R

The benefits of flexible working to individual health and wellbeing are well known but these have to be balanced against the perceived norms of work-based collaboration and productivity that were largely successful in the pre-Covid world.

The Office for National Statistics released a report on 25 August 2021 about the impact of working from home on older workers and found that flexible working has previously been shown to assist this demographic to remain in the labour market for longer. This means that their experience, skill and talent is not lost as they continue to be productive, paying taxes and helping the wider economy.

The consultation closes on 1 December 2021, and we anticipate the government’s response sometime in early 2022 with any changes being introduced later in the year.

Meanwhile the existing flexible working regulations remain in force, and businesses are being encouraged by the government to embrace the spirit of this legislation  where possible. Clearly it will now be more difficult to justify refusing flexible working requests unless there is a compelling rationale.

Only time will tell if the pandemic has caused a permanent shift in working practices or will ultimately be seen as a golden moment in history that employers regard as unsustainable in the future. Hopefully common sense and proportionality will prevail.

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Daniel Zona

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