In a speech last year, Nick Clegg said that the government wanted to examine the option of extending flexible working beyond mums and dads. He talked about extending flexible leave to grandparents or close family friends in order to make it “much more common – a cultural norm”.
The law currently restricts the right to request flexible working to parents with children under the age of 17 (or 18 if the child is disabled) or to carers. Sometimes such a request can stall or, at worst, end careers. It is often sensible for working parents to mention at interview stage that they want to work flexibly, whether it is working four days a week, asking for a job share partner or leaving on a certain number of days to collect children from school. Refusing these requests can result in an unnecessary loss of talent. An employer is fully entitled to refuse such a request on the basis of a “genuine business ground” such as the negative effect on customer demand, quality or performance or due to the effect on existing staff.
As we have read many times before, flexible working can instil immense loyalty in workers and improve staff morale. This is often seen by management as a “nice” employee relations exercise and something that firmly falls within the remit of human resources. Yet, true change should come from management. There are many positive business advantages of flexible/remote working and the real-life examples detailed below illustrate the benefits. Now is the time to consider extending the option of flexible working beyond the current legal remit.
A fresh look at remote working
Remote working does not mean working from a kitchen table surrounded by noisy children and builders. It means working anywhere that is not the firm's physical office assisted by the use of skype, facetime and video conferencing to discuss matters with colleagues and clients. Employers often argue that they cannot be certain their employees are working hard. There is an element of trust in every employment relationship. Unproductive people will find ways to procrastinate irrespective of whether they are remote working or gossiping with colleagues in the office. These issues should be managed through appropriate HR procedures.
Remote working provides an employer with access to new markets. If your employee wants to spend a couple of hours after school with their child to assist them with their homework or coach a sports team every Wednesday afternoon or pursue a passion for music by giving regular piano recitals, then why not let them take the afternoon off work and reach your American client base for four hours that evening? This will invariably deliver a better and extended service for clients in our age of technological advancement.
Remote working can also have an enormous benefit in reducing sick days. According to a study of 24,000 IBM staff worldwide, employees who worked flexibly were able to work an additional 19 hours a week before they experienced the same levels of stress as those who did not work flexibly. Reducing current levels of sickness is key for any employer and the positive effects of flexible and remote working could therefore result in a win-win situation.
Remote working can manage the increasing high percentage of office space that employers fail to use. Companies, like BT, allow their staff to vary their hours for a range of different reasons. This has resulted in the need for less office space and BT claims to have saved £500 million. Remote working frees up this space and reduces what is often considered to be “dead commuting time” especially when individuals need to change their mode of transportation a number of times in one journey in order to reach their office.
How about the environmental impact? Twenty-two percent of UK domestic carbon emissions are from traffic. The government is currently considering legislation to reduce parking spaces at work with Nottingham leading the way and imposing a “Workplace Parking Levy”. With the ongoing focus on reducing carbon emission, remote working is a pragmatic solution and is certain to impress employees and shareholders.
The government has recommenced the fight to prevent Europe from making our employees work less than 48 hours per week. Trade unions and employer organisations (collectively called “the social partners”) are trying to reach an agreement on “working time” issues by September 2012.
The main debate in Europe relating to the Working Time Regulations 1998, which implement the European Working Time Directive, is whether or not Europe will still allow the UK to ask its middle management and junior staff to sign a document, often attached to an employment contract, in which they agree to “opt out” of the 48-hour working week. Although it is often hard to exceed the 48 hour working week (as it applies over a rolling 17 week reference period), the fundamental aim of the restriction is to protect workers from the health and safety consequences of overworking.
Rather than rely on this stringent 48-hour working week or lose sleep over the health and safety liabilities that might arise if these hours are exceeded, employers could start to focus less on potential loopholes and consider offering employees the right to work flexibly and remotely.
Meeting clients and colleagues face-to-face is hard to beat and should always be encouraged. However, all employers, whether large or small, should think imaginatively. A strategic business decision that is led by members of management who want to move out of the Victorian era and embrace the benefits of ever-changing technology could change the workforce of the future. Employees should be judged by the results they achieve and not by presenteeism.
Emma Clark is a senior associate at Fox Solicitors, she advises employers, employees, partners and firms on their full range of employment and partnership law concerns.
*Mandatory fields your email address will not be published. All comments are moderated and may be edited. Comments do not necessarily reflect the views of the Catalogue Development Centre Ltd.