New Flexible Working Bill will allow employees to make two flexible working requests within a 12-month period Christin Hume/Unsplash

A leading employment lawyer has warned that plans to grant employees more freedom to request flexible work arrangements may have an impact on how businesses run.

According to Joanne Stronach, Head of Employment Law and HR at Cartmell Shepherd Solicitors, employers must be prepared for the new legislation allowing employees the right to request flexible working on the first day of their employment.

This comes after a bill, known as the Employee Relations (Flexible Working) Bill, was introduced in the Houses of Parliament.

What is the Employee Relations (Flexibility Working) Bill?

The Employee Relations Bill was introduced by Yasmin Qureshi, a member of the British Labour Party. It would amend the Employment Rights Act 1996 to make it easier for employees to request flexible working.

The purpose of the bill was to allow people to request flexible working, which will enable more skilled workers to enter the workforce again. Ms Qureshi also said the bill would help those already in employment balance work and home life.

The new bill, if passed, would allow employees to make two flexible working requests within a 12 months period, instead of one. It will also reduce the deadline for employers to respond to flexible working requests from three months to two months and remove the requirement that employees must explain the reason for their request to their employer.

An expert's opinion on what employers can expect if the bill is passed

Joanne Stronach said the new rules aim to ensure that more people have access to flexible working and support employees who have to balance commitments like caring for children or the elderly while working.

"For employers, it means thinking carefully about how roles can be fulfilled within their business and whether they can accommodate flexible working within their team and if so, what form it could take.

"Flexible working isn't just about working from home. It covers a variety of situations including job sharing, flexitime and working compressed, annualised or staggered hours," she added.

Ms Stronach further explained that while employees have the legal right to request flexible working, they're not legally entitled to receive it. The needs of the firm at the time of the request will determine whether the application is approved.

Here's what employers should be aware of

Employees have the legal right to seek flexible working, even though they are not legally entitled to receive it. However, the new bill would require employers to hold open and constructive discussions with their employees regarding flexible working options and attempt to meet requests and find solutions whenever possible.

Presently, new employees have to wait 26 weeks before they can seek to change their working hours, timings or location. However, the new rules will allow requests from day one.

Regarding this, Ms Stronach warned that businesses can find themselves in a situation where they promote and hire someone for a full-time, office-based position only to get a request for a flexible work schedule on the first day of employment.

"This is a big change for employers which could potentially create difficult situations for businesses to manage," said the Head of Employment Law and HR.

She advised that employers must ensure that they are aware of the legislation before it comes into force and consider ways to potentially introduce flexible working hours without their businesses.

"By embedding it within the culture of your business, you are widening the pool of applicants during the recruitment process by reaching those who will benefit from flexible working, as well as creating a working environment for your wider team which supports higher productivity and staff retention," she added.

The bill has currently passed all its stages in the House of Commons without any amendments. It received its first reading in the House of Lords on 27 February 2023 and is awaiting the schedule for its second hearing.