The Flexible Working Bill: what you need to know

On the 6th April, the work landscape in the UK will be undergoing a big change. The date marks the introduction of the Flexible Working Bill.

The legislation ensures that all employees have the legal right to request flexible working. This can include requests to change the number of hours they work, when they start or finish work, the days they work, and where they work.

Once in force, workers are set to benefit from new protections:

  • New requirements for employers to consult with the employee before rejecting their flexible working request
  • Permission to make two statutory requests in any 12-month period (rather than the current one request)
  • Reduced waiting times for decisions to be made (within which an employer administers the statutory request) from three months to two months
  • The removal of existing requirements that the employee must explain what effect, if any, the change applied for would have on the employer and how that effect might be dealt with

Following the announcement that the legislation had achieved Royal Assent, Business and Trade Minister Kevin Hollinrake said: “A happier workforce means increased productivity, and that’s why we’re backing measures to give people across the UK even more flexibility over where and when they work.

“Not only does flexible working help individuals fit work alongside other commitments – whether it’s the school drop off, studying or caring for vulnerable friends and family – it’s good business sense too, helping firms to attract more talent, increase retention and improve workforce diversity.”

How will this work?

As of the 6th April, employees will be about to make a statutory application regarding flexible working. Currently, employees must have worked for the same employer for at least 26 weeks to be eligible, but from the 6th April, employees can request flexible working from their first day in a new job. Another change is that previously, employees were only able to make one request in the space of 12 month, but this has now been increased to two requests within the same period.

Employers must deal with requests in a reasonable manner. Employers must assess the advantages and disadvantages of the application, hold a meeting to discuss the request with the employee, and offer an appeal process.

If an employer doesn’t handle the request in a reasonable manner, the employee can take them to an employee tribunal over it. Though, if the request is handled reasonably, an employer is allowed to refuse an application if they have a good business reason for doing so.

Applying for flexible working

The basic steps of applying for flexible working are as follows:

  • The employee writes to the employer with their flexible working request. The application must include the date, a statement that this is a statutory request, details of how the employee wants to work flexibly and when they want to start, an explanation of how they think flexible working might affect the business and how this could be dealt with, and a statement saying if and when they’ve made a previous application.
  • The employer must consider the request and make a decision within two months, or longer if agreed with the employee.
  • If the employer agrees to the request, they must change the terms and conditions in the employee’s contract. If agreeing to the application, the employer should write to the employee with a statement of the agreed changes, and a start date for when this will take effect. All of this should be done as soon as possible, but no later than 28 days after the request was approved.
  • If the employer disagrees, they must write to the employee giving the business reasons for the refusal. Employers may reject an application for different reasons, such as: extra costs that will damage the business, the work cannot be reorganised among other staff, people cannot be recruited to do the work, flexible working will affect quality and performance, the business will not be able to meet customer demand, there’s a lack of work to do during the proposed working times, the business is planning changes to the workforce. The employee may be able to complain to an employment tribunal if they believe the request has not been dealt with in a reasonable manner.

Reactions from the industry

The workforce has responded positively to the announcement of this legislation. A study conducted by Slack which surveyed 1,000 UK desk workers found that over half (55%) of employees plan to apply for new flexible working arrangements following the introduction of the Flexible Working Bill. It is estimated that the largest demographic set to benefit from this change is working parents, who are more likely to request earlier working hours to align with school hours.

Though some people don’t believe this bill is quite enough to make a real difference. Ronni Zehavi, CEO and Co-Founder of HiBob commented: “The Employee Relations (Flexible Working) Act, Protection from Redundancy (Pregnancy and Family Leave) Act and Carer’s Leave legislation represent important steps forward in the UK – however, they still fall short of the needs of modern employees. We all know that the workplace has fundamentally changed post-pandemic with the prevalence of hybrid work models. Businesses offering only the bare minimum to employees with vastly different expectations risk being left behind, as individuals have no qualms about seeking better opportunities elsewhere. They must actively address the unique needs of their workforce to remain competitive.

“Take childcare as an example. The new support will enable thousands of parents – specifically women who take on a disproportionate share of unpaid caregiving – to re-enter the workforce. However, if they return to a workplace with a lack of flexibility, balancing personal and professional responsibilities will be a huge challenge, where in some cases, they are forced to make sacrifices. This in turn, causes inequality in the workplace, which has caused over five in 10 (53%) women to state that having children negatively impacted career progress. 

“The point is legislation can only go so far. It is down to the employers to create cultures where everyone can thrive. Being able to request flexible work from day one is progress but doesn’t allow for the realistic needs of people. Companies need to put their employees first in order to retain top talent – creating real change and in turn, boosting business profits.”

Molly Johnson-Jones, flexible working expert and co-founder and CEO of Flexa, stated: “Crucially, there's no guarantee that these requests for flexible work will be granted. Making employers consult employees about their application, as the secondary legislation (the Employment Relations Act 2023) which is also coming into effect, is unlikely to change this either. This could leave thousands of employees who rely on flexible work in precarious positions if their requests are turned down. Individuals should know whether their needs can be accommodated before they accept a role.

“The new legislation risks exacerbating "fake flexibility”, where companies claim to offer flexible working on job adverts, but are under no obligation to offer it in practice. This makes it nearly impossible for job seekers to determine which employers will genuinely accommodate their requests for flexible work. Job seekers deserve more than legislation that risks further muddying the waters around flexible work entitlements.

“What employees really need and deserve is clarity from employers about the level of flexibility they can offer, whether that’s fully remote work, hybrid work or 5 days in an office. This is the only way for job seekers to identify companies that can accommodate their working preferences. It's also the best way for employers to find staff who will genuinely thrive in the working environment they offer.”

Though, the introduction of the Flexible Working Bill on the 6th April is a great first step in ensuring a more fair playing field for those who may not be able to work the traditional 9-5 hours due to parenthood and care responsibilities.