It’s been an illuminating week for you. Two of your employees made requests to work flexibly. The requested work patterns were different in detail, but similar in spirit – the first employee wanted to start work early, finish really early, and work for two hours late at night after his children had gone to bed; the second wanted to start late, take a long lunch break to work on his art (he has an exhibition coming up) and work really late in the evening.

The first request came on Monday. It seemed sensible and you approved the request immediately. The employee has worked with you for many years and is now at managerial level. The second employee works on the shop floor, and your gut feeling was, “Admirable, but it can’t work; none of my employees work like that.”

And then you reflected. Why did you not think the second request would work? Maybe the raising of children seemed like a serious activity that had to be respected, whereas that was the first time that artwork had been given as a reason for wanting to work flexibly. Or maybe it seemed natural to you that managers should be able to work flexibly, whereas more junior staff should not. So you looked at the rota of employees on the shop floor, played around with it to accommodate the second employee’s request, discussed it with the other affected staff, and granted both requests. You concluded that you’d been a little too conservative on your thinking on the matter.

To be clear, there is no “right” to work flexibly. All employees with at least 26 weeks service have the right to make the request once every 12 months. Originally, it was employees with caring responsibilities who had the right to request this, but now all employees have that right. Employers are obliged to consider the request and may only refuse on certain business grounds, such as cost or performance. In reality, the reasons an employer is legitimately allowed to give cover most genuine and sensible business concerns. In considering flexible working, you should also take care to avoid possible discrimination claims – have you routinely allowed more mothers than fathers to work flexibly?

If the linked article is anything to go by, you’re not alone in approaching the matter as you did. Employees on higher salaries are considerably more likely to be able to work flexibly. We shouldn’t assume that this difference is because of prejudice – not all jobs are compatible with flexible working: working at a reception, for example, requires that the reception desk be open and requires physical presence there. That said, perhaps a certain receptionist intersperses his regular reception work with some other work. If you think creatively, maybe it would be possible for all of the non-reception work to be done in one go from home. Flexible working will not be appropriate in all circumstances. You may have valid business reasons not to grant a request. But it is normally worth considering.

If you require further advice on any employment issue, you may wish to join our community; on elXtr we have numerous guides on employment law issues, including a fact sheet on the law of flexible working.

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