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Flexible working law changes come into effect

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 05 Apr 2024

New flexible working laws come into force tomorrow (6 April) giving employees greater rights to flexible working. Are you ready for the reforms?

Changes to flexible working laws coming into force tomorrow (6 April) introducing substantial changes to current employment laws. Employees are now able to make two flexible working requests in any 12-month period, instead of the current one request and have the legal right to make a statutory request for permanent changes to their contract, including when, where and how long they work, from their first day of employment. 

Under the new regime, employers must respond to a request within two months unless there is a mutually agreed extension; currently employers have three months to respond to a request. Employers will also be required to consult with their staff before rejecting a flexible working request. The existing law has no requirement for a consultation.

Jim Moore, employee relations expert at HR consultants Hamilton Nash, says: “Reducing the response deadline from three months to two should not be a major issue, as it usually doesn’t take that long to determine whether the request is workable. Besides, employers can propose a ‘trial period’ before committing to a permanent change in working arrangements.”

Importantly, employees will no longer need to outline a business case for their flexible working request. If employers do not deal with the request properly it could result in employee action.

“The biggest problem for employers is the entitlement to file a request from day one of employment,” says Moore. “Employers need time to evaluate an employee’s performance and capabilities when considering a request, which will be difficult if the individual files the request within the first few weeks of employment.” 

Employers can of course reject a request, but the rejection will have to comply with seven stated reasons, such as extra costs damaging the business or the impact on quality and performance. “The potential impact on performance and quality may be a justified reason for rejecting a request, and a lack of sufficient time to evaluate the individual might actually support that argument,” Moore says.

Eyebrows will also be raised over why an employee didn’t discuss their working arrangements and their needs during the hiring process, if they then ambush the employer with a flexible working request on day one.

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Manifesto 2024: ICAEW's vision for a renewed and resilient UK

Broadening the labour market

Simon Gray, ICAEW’s Head of Business, believes the reforms could ease recruitment pressures. “ICAEW members across multiple sectors have reported retention and recruitment challenges, exacerbated by a reduced labour force. Although there are signs that labour pressures have started to ease, the new measures could encourage individuals to once again enter the job market,” he says.

He adds that although the new laws require an adjustment by employers, “particularly in relation to day one rights and meeting the needs of the business”, it could enable organisations to tap into a wider and more diverse talent pool.

Access to the workplace and productivity are two areas ICAEW examines closely in its 2024 Manifesto, where it outlines a series of policy recommendations for the next UK government. This includes ensuring flexibility in the welfare system and access to childcare services to help people back into work who might otherwise struggle to access the workplace.

Helen Sachdev, working parent champion and director at WOMBA (Work, Me and the Baby), believes the new laws could improve productivity at work and agrees with Gray that it could widen the talent pool available to employers. “More hours at a desk do not equate to a more productive workforce,” she says. “Research has proven that flexible working is a key driver of productivity. Policies that dictate start and finish times are archaic and slam the door shut on a pool of talented working parents, leaving many – mainly mums as the assumed primary caregiver – to sacrifice their careers.” 

However, employers aren’t expected to be inundated by a massive influx of new requests just because the right exists from day one: a survey by Acas found that 70% of employees were unaware of new legal changes.

Amanda Augustine, careers expert at TopCV, says if the new laws are effective it will offer greater negotiating powers for employees to improve their work-life balance and accommodate other non-work commitments. “While this change benefits all workers, it can be especially valuable to working parents who are constantly juggling their family’s needs with their work demands,” she says.

The government is advising employers that they will need to manage such requests reasonably and potentially change how they manage flexible working requests within their organisation. Augustine says the new laws will force employers to make adjustments that will ultimately impact the company culture and may require employers to invest in new or different technologies to ensure teams are able to still collaborate and communicate effectively, irrespective of their physical location. 

Support on the changes

To help companies adapt to the changes due to take effect on 6 April, the Department for Business and Trade (DBT) has launched a webpage where employers can learn more about the changes and find support. There is also government guidance available for organisations and businesses to use if an employee made a request before the changes took effect.

Meanwhile, ICAEW’s Small and Micro Business Community is hosting an employment law update with Acas in April which will also discuss the changes.

Employment law update

ICAEW's Small & Micro Business Community are hosting a webinar with James Forse, Acas, providing an overview of key updates and developments in employment law, highlighting the changes businesses should consider.

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