Flexible working has proved to be enormously popular; not just with new mothers returning from maternity leave but with young parents generally.
In an age where often both parents work, maintaining a work/life balance has become a major concern.
From the employee’s point of view, a four-day week or mornings-only routine has much to recommend it. For employers on the other hand, it is a mixed bag. On the plus side, it is very good for retention. Staff with a really suitable arrangement like this are unlikely to be moving elsewhere. But on the down-side, the rent has to be paid five days a week, not just mornings; and the heating and lighting will be on, machinery running, desks and computers sitting idle, while the employee is at home. It all seems rather inefficient.
The Flexible Working Regulations set out a procedure for resolving these tensions. The main elements are that the employee sets out a written request for reduced hours – most employers have a standard form, and the employee should include details of how the new system would work in practice from the business’s point of view – a meeting is held, the proposal is either accepted or rejected, and there is a right of appeal. If the request is refused, the employer has to do so on one or more of eight statutory grounds, which include the burden of additional costs, or the impact on quality or performance.
A refusal can be risky, especially for a mother returning to work after maternity leave. If the company insists on the old full-time hours, this may be met with a resignation, and if the company cannot justify its refusal, it will amount to sex discrimination and unfair dismissal.
All too often however, requests for flexible working are very inflexible requests for particular reduced hours, and a company can justify its stance by offering some flexibility. It may, for example not be practical to have someone go home at 2.30 pm if that would leave no one on reception. It may be difficult to recruit someone for the rest of the day. But the company could consider a job-share arrangement, mornings and afternoons, or perhaps a three-day week instead.
Following the procedure is straightforward, and there is plenty of useful guidance available, e.g. The BIS: Guide to flexible working and work-life balance.
The negotiations however call for some give and take on both sides, and you may need help deciding where to draw the line; i.e. what might be justifiable in an employment tribunal.