Employees are to get the right to request flexible working from the moment they start a job under new government legislation, in a move welcomed by unions, who urged ministers to go further in terms of making such arrangements the norm.
Millions of people across the UK are currently working flexibly, which can take various forms including working from home, job-sharing, compressed hours, flexitime and part-time and term-time-only working.
On Monday the government said it would introduce legislation giving employees the right to request such arrangements from the moment they start a job. It also said about 1.5 million low-paid workers, including some gig economy employees, students and carers, would benefit from a new law ensuring they are free to boost their income by taking on a second job if they wished.
Surveys from companies such as the insurer Royal London show many people increasingly view flexibility as an important or even non-negotiable requirement when applying for jobs, and with companies wrestling with a chronic shortage of workers, growing numbers of employers are having to offer these working patterns if they want to recruit and keep staff.
However, some workers told a TUC survey they would not feel comfortable asking for flexible working in a job interview for fear of the response.
On Monday, ministers said they planned “to make flexible working the default”. However, critics have pointed to government clashes with civil servants and unions over the issue of home working.
In October 2021, the cabinet minister Oliver Dowden said civil servants working from home should “get off their Pelotons and get back to their desks”. Earlier this year the then minister for government efficiency, Jacob Rees-Mogg, was criticised for leaving “condescending” notes on the desks of civil servants who were not in the office, in an effort to discourage working from home.
Under the current law, all employees can make a flexible working request after 26 weeks in a job. One request can be made every 12 months, and employers have three months to respond, with broad criteria for rejection and no right to appeal.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said millions of employees would be able to ask for flexible working from day one of their employment under its new legislation.
Employers will be required to discuss other options before rejecting a request – for example, if it is not possible to change an employee’s working hours on all their days, they could consider making the change for some days.
BEIS also said that workers on contracts with a guaranteed weekly income below the lower earnings limit of £123 a week would be protected against “exclusivity clauses” that restrict them from working for multiple employers.
It added that “while not everyone will want a second job”, this move would remove unnecessary red tape that prevented those who did, such as some gig economy workers, younger people and those with caring responsibilities who were unable to commit to a full-time role.
However, BEIS did not give a timescale for the legislation. Frances O’Grady, the TUC’s general secretary, pointed out it had been a year since a consultation on flexible working closed and people were “tired of waiting for action”.
O’Grady said that allowing requests for flexible arrangements from day one was a step in the right direction but the government needed “to go much further to ensure flexible work now becomes the norm”.
She added: “Ministers must change the law so that every job advert makes clear what kind of flexible working is available in that role. And they should give workers the legal right to work flexibly from their first day in a job – not just the right to ask.”
Former government advisor, founder of the Business Champion awards and advocate of flexible working, Richard Alvin commented: “I am very pleased that something that I recommended and discussed with David Cameron’s government is finally starting to make its way into employment legislation. The pandemic taught us that for many companies the output of their staff is enhanced when they feel empowered to do what is required of them without the need for forced office presenteeism or an outdated 9 to 5 culture.”