Welcome to Part 2 of our “Asking for Flex” guide, which advises on what to do when receiving a flexible working request from an existing employee. You can find Part 1 here on the blog or download the full guide (which includes advice for professionals making flex requests to businesses) as a PDF.
This guide will always be a work in progress. Disagree with anything we’ve said? We’d love to hear your comments below.
Businesses: How to handle a flex request by an employee
First a reminder: if the employee has worked with you for at least 26 weeks then they have a right to make a statutory application for flexible working. Your business is required by law to consider this request reasonably, and only turn it down if there is a business reason for doing so.
“Business reason” actually equates to a fair number of things, but we would strongly caution against trying to “find” a reason to turn down their request. Employees know the ins and outs of their department or team at least as well as you do, and they will be able to spot disingenuous reasoning. Under those circumstances – and especially if their needs for flexible working are intractable – it’s in the employee’s best interests to leave and find another job that can accommodate them. Baulking at the work required to create a flexible solution might lead to the extra work of having to hire someone completely new (or a tribunal, and nobody wants that). Our advice is to trust that flexible working will bear dividends, give employees the benefit of the doubt and deal with their requests in good faith. Try to keep your opinions on flexible working in general separate from the requests/schedule of each specific employee.
Once you’ve received a request, make sure you have a good understanding of the principle responsibilities of the role and how engaged you need the employee to be in company culture. Read through the first section of this guide as the principles are the same. This should give you a good framework to judge the feasibility of their request. Remember that flex is a conversation, and will require the employee to rethink their own areas of responsibility and potentially make concessions of their own. Figure out what the deal-breakers are for them – things like care-giving responsibilities that cannot be rearranged – and then work on from there.
You’ll also need to think hard about how you measure performance. If you haven’t already, discuss some new and measurable goals with the employee and work out a valid timescale for delivery. If you have worries about productivity with a flexible schedule (something which in our experience very rarely manifests) this is the most practical way to assuage them: make sure that both parties walk away with clarity on what’s expected. Again, here we think it’s best to give employees the benefit of the doubt. If you have concerns about an individual employee you can either begin performance managing then and there OR see if a more flexible schedule increases their motivation and productivity. When you follow up you’ll be able to tell whether your fears were unfounded or not (a useful aspect of flex for business is that it makes currently unproductive employees easier to identify). Make sure you’ve also discussed cultural expectations: meetings and gatherings they should always aim to attend and how they’ll go about communicating their new schedule to their colleagues.
Creating a flexible working solution for your existing employees may take some time (the law gives you three months to figure it out) and perhaps some intellectual effort but we think the future benefits will easily outweigh these immediate costs. When properly and thoughtfully implemented the model drives performance, and you should trust that it will do the same for your business.
To be frank, your options here are limited. Flexible working looks set to become the norm, which means companies that lag behind in implementing it will be seen as increasingly undesirable places to work (as well as being outperformed by more agile competitors). This is an area of business culture where the winds are already changing. The best thing to do is trim the sails and try to build up speed.