The HR Dept
While flexible working has been attractive to many workers for years, the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated its adoption more than anyone could have imagined.
Now, when job hunting in this candidates’ recruitment market, it is a non-negotiable for some workers and a nice-to-have for others. How should SMEs approach this topical issue?
Flexible working is not an interchangeable term for working from home, although it could mean that. It may also refer to alternative working hours, say 10am-6pm to avoid rush-hour commuting, or compressed hours; perhaps to work a full week’s worth of hours in four days, a hybrid solution or, indeed, something else.
By law, an employee has the right to request flexible working if they have 26 weeks’ service with you. They need to state how it could work for your business. You do not have to grant it, but you must consider it fairly and make a decision within three months. It is essential to judge any case on its own merits, making sure your decision is underpinned by business reasons and documented in writing.
Be careful of the discrimination risk. Granting flexible working to one person and not another (without good reason) is one risk. A heightened risk is not properly considering a request which is based on a protected characteristic like sex, age or maternity and pregnancy. One tribunal in 2021 awarded an employee £185,000 for indirect sex discrimination when her flexible working request was not properly considered.
Reacting appropriately to requests is a minimum. As we – hopefully - enter the post-Covid landscape, it would be advantageous to think proactively and strategically about flexible working.
If it is something you can offer, create a policy that describes how it will work for your business. This may include why it is possible for some roles and not others. The framework such a policy provides will be an invaluable tool for you. By the same measure, if it simply won’t work for your business, explain the reasons. If you do adopt significant changes to your working practices, it is also important to review your employment contracts and handbook, which may require consultation.
Another potential pitfall is around the issue of lingering Covid-19. For example, some people may have acute anxiety about returning to the workplace, for which problem home working is the most practical solution. What about when someone tests positive and needs to isolate?
Having a Covid isolation aspect to the policy should reassure your healthy staff, whilst providing a process for people to work remotely if they are able to. This avoids sick days, boosting your productivity.
You can probably see that, while before the pandemic it may have seemed possible to duck the issue of flexible working, there are now simply too many ways in which you could lose out if you don’t address it proactively. Taking the initiative may help you do better with recruitment and retention, sidestep the risk of discrimination and maintain productivity during times of adversity.
For enquiries on this topic, please contact Sara Abbott from The HR Dept, at firstname.lastname@example.org.