Make time for more flexible personnel

Rob Gray
Monday, October 13, 2014

Flexibility is great, right? Fantastic if you’re trying out yoga. But only up to a point. It would be a bad thing if you were so bendy you tied yourself up in knots. While conversely, complete inflexibility, is unlikely to get you very far. Unless of course the A&E department is a painfully long journey away from where you put your back out while Bikram bending.

From a business perspective, the debate around the pros and cons of flexibility has recently moved a lot further up the HR agenda. As of 30 June this year, new rules came into effect giving workers the right to ask for flexible working arrangements – and obliging firms to answer them.

Previously only parents of children under the age of 16 or people registered as carers for children or adults had the right to request that their work patterns be changed to make home life easier. Now all employees, irrespective of whether they have any dependants, are free to make one ‘flexibility request’ per year; as long as they have worked for their employer for 26 weeks or more. 

As the term implies, there are a variety of ways to work flexibly. These include: job sharing, where two people do one job and split the hours between them; working from home, where an employee may do some or all of the work from home or anywhere other than the normal workplace; part-time, where an employee works less than full-time hours, usually by working fewer days; compressed hours, where an employee works full-time hours but over fewer days; flexitime, where the employee chooses when to start within agreed limits but has to work certain core hours, for example 10am to 4pm every day, or annualised, where an employee has to work a certain number of hours during a year but has some flexibility about when he or she works; and staggered hours, where an employee has different start, finish and break times from other workers.

A Department for Business, Innovation and Skills impact assessment estimates that the new policy will bring overall economic benefits of about £475m in its first 10 years. Most of that, the government believes, will come from increased productivity, lower staff turnover and a fall in absenteeism. Set against this, the net cost of the policy change to businesses spread over the decade is projected to be just over £100m. In other words, the government is confident that in financial terms the upside is almost five times greater than the costs employers will incur.

Mixed reaction

But beyond the positive spin from Whitehall, not everyone is as enthusiastic. A YouGov survey for mobile workspace business Citrix published in June found many SME owners were unprepared or regarded the changes with some suspicion. 

Almost half (46%) of SME decision-makers had no flexible working policy in place. Moreover, only 43% said they supported the new legislation, with 21% fearing it would negatively affect their business. Tellingly, if not unexpectedly, the research also pointed up significant generational differences in attitude. Bosses aged 25-34 were twice as likely to support the new policy as those older than 55. 

So, what does all this mean for print? What rights do employers have? How should they respond when faced with a flexible working request? And is it likely that many such requests will materialise?

“The admin side of our business is more female dominated and we’ve always had a trickle of people who’ve been after more flexibility, and by and large we’ve been able to accommodate them,” says Paul Hulley, managing director at St Ives Group-owned book printer Clays. “On the floor it’s a 24-hour operation and a more male-dominated environment. But because there’s shift work it’s inherently flexible. So this isn’t an issue that’s really hit the radar here.” 

Under the revised legislation, employers will have a duty to consider all requests, but, crucially, there is still the right to refuse requests on genuine business grounds. Rejecting a request must be for one of the following business reasons as set out in the legislation: the burden of additional costs; inability to reorganise work among existing staff; inability to recruit additional staff; a detrimental impact on quality; a detrimental impact on performance; detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand; insufficient work for the periods the employee proposes to work; or a planned structural change to your business.

Upon receiving a request, employers should arrange to discuss it with the employee as soon as possible. If there is likely to be any delay in discussing the request, an employer should inform the employee.

Once a decision has been made, the employer must inform the employee as soon as possible, preferably in writing as this can help avoid future confusion on what was decided. If the employee’s request is accepted, or accepted with modifications, this should be discussed with the employee to decide how the changes might best be implemented.

An employer should in any event comply with the law in this respect. The consideration process must be completed within three months of first receiving the request. It’s important to note that if the initial request is turned down, the employer should allow the employee to appeal the decision. The appeal must also be concluded within three months of the initial request. 

“Everything now is about following the proper process,” says Precision Printing managing director Gary Peeling. “Do that and employers have far more control than many of us realise. Find out what the process is, always follow it and it will be fine. Listen, consider, consult and only ever do what is best for the business and issues like discrimination will evaporate. Never just give a knee-jerk reaction, however tempting.” 

Peeling concedes there are many roles in the industry that can be undertaken remotely, such as sales, marketing, accounting and artworking. Moreover, shift systems in operation for years on the shop floor may provide flexible environments that can be transferred to customer-facing or office services.

But Peeling also strikes a note of caution: “The difficulty is that managing all of the moving parts takes resource, and that’s a struggle even for large companies. Make use of services like the BPIF. They take the guesswork out of this stuff and allow you to focus on what’s important to all staff and employers: keeping the business happy and healthy.”

If a meeting is arranged to discuss the application or an appeal and the employee fails to attend both this and a rearranged meeting without a good reason, you can consider the request withdrawn and inform the employee of this decision.

Limited uptake

George Thompson, managing director at recruitment agency Harrison Scott Associates doesn’t think there will be too many flexible working requests at print SMEs. 

“Employees who work for SMEs are all too aware of the pressures that already exist in the business. A small print company will have almost as many departments as a large print firm: accounts, estimating, customer services, sales, production. However, a small printer might only have one estimator and a large print firm four or five estimators. If the salesman of the small print firm wants an estimate at 3pm on a Thursday, and that’s the day Johnny the only estimator gets away at 2pm, that business will suffer. If an employer has to turn down requests diplomatically, all he or she would have to do is outline the impacts to the business those changes would have. 

“If on the other hand an employer feels strongly that there are many advantages both to the employer and the employee, and fosters an atmosphere where requests for flexible working are encouraged, that is a different matter. Looking at it from the other end of the scale, one of our clients, the HR director of a large print group, is of the opinion that employers will see an increase in flexible working requests from employees approaching retirement as a way of helping them adapt to a non-working lifestyle. This will present a challenge because of the need to be lean and cost-effective – this will require solutions more applicable to non-shift/non-operational environments. He sees this being the paradigm that increasingly businesses will have to challenge.”

Overall, though, the likelihood is that employers have little to fear. These changes should perhaps be seen as an opportunity to consider new and alternative options which could benefit both employees and the business. That’s certainly the opinion of Mercury Search & Selection director Dani Novick.

“When the right to flexible working was introduced for parents and carers, there wasn’t a big impact on the print industry,” says Novick. “Typically less than 3% of the workforce made requests, over two thirds of which were easily accommodated. Therefore, based on historic and recent feedback I don’t believe there is going to be a dramatic change. Despite media excitement and the energetic prophecies of evangelists and doom-mongers, the working population, particularly in the print industry, is relatively settled in its working patterns. Yes, there are changes, but these tend to be slower than predicted.”


FLEXIBLE WORKING: Your guide to implementation

Types of flexible working

Job sharing, where two people do one job and split the hours between them.

Working from home, where an employee may do some or all of the work from home or anywhere else than the normal workplace.

Part-time, where an employee works less than full-time hours, usually by working fewer days.

Compressed hours, where an employee works full-time hours but over fewer days.

Flexitime, where the employee chooses when to start within agreed limits but has to work certain core hours, for example 10am to 4pm every day, or annualised, where an employee has to work a certain number of hours during a year but has some flexibility about when he or she works.

Staggered hours, where an employee has different start, finish and break times from other workers.

A ‘right to request’ policy

Employers should consider introducing a policy for handling requests to work flexibly. A policy can help to ensure consistency in handling requests and can also make it easier to communicate information on the right to request in a transparent manner to all employees. A right to request policy can be a standalone policy or it can be included within a wider equality or flexible working policy. Issues that such a policy should cover include:

  • How employees should make the application, including who the application should be made to and what should be covered in the application.
  • A statement that the employer will consider the request and will only reject it for one of the eight specified reasons (below).
  • Who can accompany the employee at any meeting regarding the request (so a work colleague or trade union representative).
  • The time limits on dealing with requests.

The request

You should make clear to employees that a request from an employee under the Employment Rights Act 1996 and regulations made under it must be in writing and must include the following information:

  • The date of their application, the change to working conditions they are seeking and when they would like the change to come into effect.
  • What effect, if any, they think the requested change would have on you as the employer and how, in their opinion, any such effect might be dealt with.
  • A statement that this is a statutory request and if and when they have made a previous application for flexible working.

Employees must be aware that if the employer approves their application under the right to request, they do not have a statutory right to request another variation in contractual terms for a period of 12 months although they may still ask without the statutory right.

Handling a request

Upon receiving a request, employers should arrange to discuss it with the employee as soon as possible. If there is likely to be any delay in discussing the request, an employer should inform the employee.

The law requires the consideration process must be completed within three months of first receiving the request, including any appeal.

If you intend to approve the request straight away then a meeting is not needed.

If the employee is only looking for an informal change for a short period to their working hours or conditions, for instance to cope with a bereavement or to pursue a short course of study, employers may wish to consider allowing them to revert back to their old conditions after a specified period, say three months, or after the occurrence of a specific event, such as the end of a course of study.

Any flexible working discussion should be treated like any other management conversation and should take place in a location where it cannot be overheard by other workers.

The discussion does not have to be face to face and if the employer and employee agree it can be held by phone or some other way.

If an employee doesn’t keep to a meeting and any subsequent rearranged one without a reason then the law allows an employer to deem the application as withdrawn. However, the employer should find out and consider the reasons for the employee failing to attend both meetings before reaching any decision to close their application. The employer must notify the employee of the decision.

Considering a request

An employer should consider the request carefully, looking at the benefits of the requested changes in working conditions for the employee and the business, and weigh these against any adverse impact.

In considering these business reasons an employer must be careful not to inadvertently discriminate against particular employees because of their protected characteristics. For example, where flexible working arrangements would be a reasonable adjustment for a disabled employee.

There may be some occasions, when an employer receives more than one request to work flexibly closely together from different employees. Requests should be considered in the order they are received. Having considered and approved the first request the employer should remember that the business context has now changed.

Rejecting a request

An employer has the right to refuse flexible working requests if:

  • The burden of any additional costs is unacceptable to the organisation.
  • It is unable to reorganise work among existing staff.
  • It is unable to recruit additional staff.
  • It considers the change will have a detrimental impact on quality.
  • The employer considers the change would have a detrimental effect on the business’s ability to meet customer demand.
  • This would have a detrimental impact on performance.
  • There is insufficient work during the periods the employee proposes to work.
  • There are planned structural changes, for example, where the employer intends to reorganise or change the business and considers the flexible working changes may not fit with these plans.

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