The government has published a consultation document that aims to give British workers more choice over when and where they work.
Under the plans – which expand on a commitment set out in the government’s 2019 manifesto – around 2.2 million more people will be given the right to request flexible working.
The proposals consider “whether limiting an employee’s application for flexible working to one per year continues to represent the best balance between individual and business needs”.
The consultation also looks at cutting the current three-month period an employer has to consider any request. If an employer cannot accommodate a request, "they would need to think about what alternatives they could offer – for example, if they couldn’t change their employee’s hours on all working days, they could consider making the change for certain days instead”, according to the government.
The consultation looks at a range of flexible working methods such as job-sharing, flexitime, compressed, annualised, and staggered hours, as well as phased retirement – not just working from home. It allows employees to balance their work and home life, including helping people who are managing childcare commitments or other caring responsibilities as well as ensuring that people who are under-represented in Britain’s workforce, such as new parents or disabled people, have access to more opportunities.
The proposals are also good for British business. The government states that "research has shown companies that embrace flexible working can attract more talent, improve staff motivation and reduce staff turnover – boosting their business’s productivity and competitiveness”.
However, there are some circumstances where businesses will not be able to offer flexible working, says the government and in these cases “it is clear that they should still be able to reject a request if they have sound business reasons and will also respect freedom of contract rather than prescribing specific arrangements in legislation”.
The proposals provide “a framework to encourage conversations and balance the needs of employees and employers”, says the government.
Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said: “Empowering workers to have more say over where and when they work makes for more productive businesses and happier employees.
“It was once considered a ‘nice to have’, but by making requests a day one right, we’re making flexible working part of the DNA of businesses across the country.
“A more engaged and productive workforce, a higher calibre of applicants and better retention rates – the business case for flexible working is compelling.”
The proposed changes would also mean that all applicants will know they can ask for flexible working before applying for a job. Equally, employers will need to consider whether they can offer flexible working before advertising.
Linda Hausmanis, chief executive at IWFM, said: "We view the Government's intent as a positive sign that the right lessons are being learned from the home-working experiment of the past 18 months and will engage with the substance over the coming weeks.
"Now that many more people recognise that work is an activity, not a destination, it is critical that businesses enable them to do their best work, whenever and wherever it may take place.
"We will feed into the consultation to put forward flexible working best practice, while also guarding against unintended consequences, such as hindering career progression or creating two-tiered workforces."
However, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Flexible working should be a day one right that’s available to everyone. But under these plans, employers will still have free rein to turn down all or any requests for flexible working.
“Instead of tinkering around the edges, ministers should change the law so that workers have the legal right to work flexibly from the first day in the job. The right to ask nicely is no right at all. Not all jobs can support every kind of flexible working – but all jobs can support some kind of flexible working. And all job adverts should make clear what kind of flexibility is available.”
TUC polling published in 2019 revealed that three in 10 requests for flexible working were turned down and that flexitime is unavailable to over half (58 per cent) of the UK workforce. This number rises to nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) for people in working-class occupations.