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18th Jan, 2022

Christy Houghton
Christy Houghton
Job Title
Digital Content Writer

With multiple lockdowns forcing many office-based employees to work from their homes for the last couple of years, some have found it easier to achieve a more flexible working life.

When lockdown restrictions eased, many businesses implemented hybrid working models to reduce the number of people in offices at one time, providing a new type of flexibility in terms of location. 75% of workers we surveyed said they have been given the opportunity to work on a hybrid basis – and this type of working is not likely to go away any time soon.

Remote and hybrid working options have opened the door to greater flexibility for all, to provide a better work-life balance and put workers in greater control of their time and the locations they work in. But what are the limits to this flexibility?

A new take on an old idea

Flexible working has been covered by legislation since 2003. While many organisations were moving towards working models with greater flexibility prior to the pandemic, widespread remote working caused by lockdowns has greatly accelerated the shift towards increased flexibility.

At present, employees can only request flexible working after 26 weeks of service at a company. However, the government is reviewing whether this rule should be changed to allow workers to request it from their first day – it's set to announce the results of its consultation within the next few months.

In a Reed webinar, law firm Blanchards Bailey’s Head of HR and Operations, Jane Cordner, stated that this change is likely to come into force because of its popularity with professionals; employers will embrace it as an effective tool for attraction and retention.

There are many different types of flexible working practices within which different parameters can be set for different needs, including:

  • Annualised hours

  • Compressed hours

  • Flexi time

  • Job sharing

  • Self-rostering

  • Shift working

  • Staggered hours

  • Term-time working

While these traditional types of flexibility are based on time, the introduction of hybrid working models to many businesses has allowed for flexibility around both time and location. For this to thrive, employers need to manage their hybrid working practices through policy.

Effective policymaking

There is currently no government legislation specific to hybrid working, but it would benefit businesses and employees to have internal guidelines to prevent any unfair practices from either side. Before implementing their own policy, business leaders should follow ACAS guidance and look for templates online which list the fundamentals. In addition, consulting employees who are already working flexibly – through a survey or just an informal chat – will give leaders a better idea of what works for them, so that their perspective isn’t one-sided.

When an employee asks for flexible working options, that is the stage to decide what would work for the individual and their team. For those not sure what type of flexibility would work best, Jane suggested conducting a trial period of about six months before making any contractual changes – because once the agreement is set, it’s difficult to adjust it further.

Any additional changes to working hours and hybrid working needs to be requested and accepted in writing one month before the change takes place. For example, if businesses need workers to fill in for others at short notice, they must have written confirmation that this was agreed one month before.

Ethics and legality

Managers should also be aware of the law and ethics around providing equal opportunities or they could open themselves up to litigation. Employers must ensure that flexibility requests are not denied for the wrong reasons – this could be treated as discrimination.

In our webinar on flexibility, Blanchards Bailey Employment Solicitor Stephen Woodman gave the example of denying a female parent options to work from home because they will be ‘distracted by children’. Not doing the same for a male parent would be discriminatory.

He also recalled that some business leaders, concerned with the performance of their staff while working remotely, have resorted to covert surveillance, which is a violation of employees’ human right to privacy. There are better ways to track performance that won’t reduce trust between employees and employers.

Maintaining productivity

With flexible working creating situations where team members are working at different times in different locations, it can be difficult for managers to keep track their team’s performance and deliver equal opportunities for training.

One of the best ways for leaders to ensure an employee is still working well is to focus on outcomes rather than input. If workers are achieving results, then flexibility is working and isn’t detrimental to productivity. Leaders who are worried about their team’s performance should do their best to maintain regular communication with their team members and have an open-door policy for any concerns or questions.

Learning and development can be more difficult for professionals while working remotely – especially those in junior roles. Since 70% of learning is informal, they may be missing out on the learning opportunities that occur naturally in a full-time office environment when surrounded by their peers and seniors. This means businesses will need to do more to develop their workforce through formal means, i.e., training courses and webinars.

Even this might be less accessible for those working remotely, or at different times to others, due to scheduling issues. Having core hours, which means everyone can work at the same time for a few hours a day, is a solution to this. Any meetings or collaborative work can be scheduled at these agreed times. If that doesn’t work, then employers can be creative and consider recording any training, webinars or meetings for people to watch back later.

Overall, the limits to flexibility are those set by business leaders and the individual working flexibly. Once a working pattern has been decided upon between an employee and employer, both parties must do their best to uphold their agreement. Businesses must be agile enough to provide the type of flexibility that works for everyone – listening to the needs of their workforce is crucial for this to work both practically and ethically.

To learn more about the practical implementation of flexible working policies, watch a recording of our webinar Flexible working: making it work for your business.

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