Making flexible working work for your business

In recent years, social and economic changes have had an increasing impact on how people work.

A number of employers have reacted to these changes - the need for many families to have two earners, for example - by introducing working patterns that enable employees better to balance their responsibilities to their jobs and their responsibilities to their home lives.

Employment legislation also means that some employees are entitled to request more flexible working patterns so that they can accommodate their duties to their family.

Introducing good work-home life practices benefits not only employees but also employers. By reducing the amount of stress that many workers feel attempting to juggle both careers and the demands of family life, employers can help to create a happier and, therefore, more productive working environment.

As well as boosting productivity, good work-home life arrangements can lead to better quality of work, a cut in sickness absence, increased staff loyalty and commitment (and, in turn, reduced recruitment costs) and higher workforce morale.

There are other advantages that can sharpen competitiveness. Properly managed, flexible working patterns can produce a more agile business, one better able to cope with fluctuations in demand and shifts in the market. Shift work and flexi-time, for example, allow a business to remain productive for longer without increasing the number of hours that individual employees work. Home working can help reduce office overheads, while shift working can involve less downtime for machinery.

Introducing work-home life policies

Before implementing flexible working policies, an employer should first assess their business needs and how these can be furthered by new working practices. The type of flexible working must also be considered: how does it fit both the operation of the business and the lives of the employees.

Employees ought to be consulted on any changes; this will help them appreciate the effects of particular flexible working patterns from their own point of view and from that of the business too. Existing employment contracts may also need to be re-written. The procedures for implementing any new working patterns should be put in writing and agreed upon, and the changes should be evaluated on a regular basis.

Flexible working regulations

Rules introduced in 2003 mean that working parents with children aged under six or with disabled children aged under eighteen have the right to ask for more flexible working patterns, and such requests must receive serious consideration from their employers.

From April 2007, the right to request flexible working was extended to include the carers of adults.

As from April 2009, the right has been extended to include all parents of children aged under sixteen.

However, employees will still need to meet the other criteria for requesting a flexible working pattern. They must be an employee (agency workers do not qualify) and have worked for you continuously for at least 26 weeks on the date they make their request. They must not have made another statutory request during the past 12 months.

To qualify, they must be the mother, father, adopter, guardian, special guardian, foster parent or private foster carer of the child; or they must be married to or the partner or civil partner of the child's mother, father, adopter, guardian, special guardian, foster parent or private foster carer.

The request for flexible working

Although parents have the right to apply for a change in their work patterns, the law does not give them an automatic right to work flexibly. This is because employers will not always be able, through force of circumstance, to accommodate the changes asked for by working parents.

Employees can ask for a change to the number of hours they work. They can ask for a change to the times at which they work. And they can ask to work from home. The types of working pattern include annualised hours, compressed hours, staggered hours, flexi-time, shift working, term time working, home working and job-sharing.

Employees should make their applications in writing. They don't have to use forms, although there are best practice forms available. If the application is accepted by the employer, then that employee's terms and conditions may have to change accordingly.

The first thing the employer should do on receiving a written application is to arrange a meeting with the employee. The meeting will give everyone the chance to discuss the employee's request for a new work pattern and to examine whether it can be managed by the business.

If it looks as if the changes proposed by the employee are going to be difficult to accommodate, then the meeting can also offer an opportunity to examine the possibility of another work pattern that might be just as helpful.

After the meeting, the employer should write to the employee either agreeing to or refusing the application.

If the employer has agreed to the changes, then they must indicate the agreement and a starting date. If the employer has turned down the request, then they must set out, clearly and briefly, the business grounds on which the proposed work pattern was not accepted. The employer must also explain the appeal procedure open to the employee.

Types of flexible working

There are various types of flexible working. Flexible working patterns can affect the number of hours employees work, the times they work and where they work. Which types best suit an employer will depend on the size and nature of the business and on its workforce.

Part-time

Part-time workers are employees who are contracted to work for less than the basic full-time hours. Part-time working is useful for covering breaks in the normal working day, extending working hours or covering peak or busy times.

Term-time working

This enables employees to cut back on their hours or to take paid or unpaid leave during school holidays.

Job sharing

A version of part-time working, job sharing involves dividing the duties and hours of a full-time position between two (or sometimes more) people. Pay and benefits are allocated according to the duties and the time worked by each person. Job sharing can involve split days or weeks, or alternate days or weeks.

Flexi-time

Flexi-time means that employees can decide when they start and finish work provided they work a number of core hours. Outside that core time, employees work an agreed number of hours over a certain period (perhaps four weeks). It is up to the employees to choose when to work those agreed hours.

Compressed working weeks

The number of hours worked by an employee in a week are concentrated into fewer working days or longer blocks of working time. Although the total number of hours remains the same, by working early or late an employee can use the additional hours to take a morning, afternoon or whole day off work at some point during the week.

Staggered hours

Employees start and finish work at different times. Staff get the opportunity to re-arrange their work times while the employer can keep the business operational for longer.

Annual hours

The hours an employee works is calculated across a whole year, taking holidays and the number of contracted hours into account. Most of the hours are divided into a number of set shifts; the remaining hours are allocated to unspecified periods which the employee can be required to work at short notice when needed, perhaps to cover for co-workers to help with peaks in demand.

Zero-hours contracts

Workers agree to make themselves available for work when required but without setting a fixed number of hours or times.

Teleworking and homeworking

Employees work from home or from somewhere other than their employer's office or premises.