UK employees will have the right to request flexible working from the moment they start a new job, under latest government proposals.

Employment Solicitor Alexandra Bullmore of East Midlands legal firm Smith Partnership examines the proposed changes in more detail and looks at what they mean for employees and employers.

An employee’s right to ask for flexible working was first introduced nearly 20 years ago so that employed parents and caregivers could request working arrangements that better suited their caring responsibilities.

This right was then extended in 2014 but took on even greater significance during the pandemic when employees shifted to homeworking and more recently, to hybrid working.

In recognition of the changing employment landscape, the UK Government now wants to allow workers a bigger say on how, when and where they work, making flexible working the default.

 Working flexibly does not simply mean spending some days in the office and some working from home. The planned changes also acknowledge other ways of working such as job sharing, flextime and alterative work patterns.

The right to request flexible working; not a right to have flexible working

One of the main changes to existing legislation will mean employees can request the right to flexible working right from day one of their new job.

At present employees can only ask to work flexibly if they have at least 26 weeks of continuous service with their employer.

However, it is important to note the new rules only give employees the right to request flexible working. They do not provide workers with the automatic right to work flexibly.

Changes to the number of requests

Under the proposals employees will be able to make two requests in relation to flexible working arrangements within a 12-month period, and employers will need to respond to any request within two months.

Currently, the law only allows employees to make one request within this time frame, and employers have three months to respond.

The government also wants to introduce a new duty on employers to discuss alternatives to a flexible working request. This means that if an employer intends to reject a request, then they must talk through any other options for working flexibly with the employee.

It is not yet clear, however, whether this will be a statutory requirement or is just guidance.

When making a request, employees will no longer need to explain what, if any, effect their flexible working might have on the employer or the business and how its impact might be dealt with.

This change is designed to simplify the procedure for employees.

Eight reasons employers can give for refusing a request

What will not be changing any time soon is the list of eight reasons employers can give for turning down a flexible working request.

For reference these are:

  1. Incurring extra costs that will damage the business
  2. Work cannot be reorganised among the other staff
  3. People cannot be recruited to do the work
  4. Quality or standard of work will be adversely affected
  5. Performance will suffer
  6. Customer demand will not be met
  7. There is insufficient work to do during the proposed changed working times
  8. Planned changes to the workforce

When will these changes be implemented

It is not yet known when these changes will come into force. There is currently no timescale for passing the legislation. It seems, however, that it will be implemented soon.