Flexible working: the law is catching up with Generation Y

The workplace is changing and developing with the times. 

Call it work-life balance or work-life integration, we understand that Generation Y expect that they will have not only more choice about their career path but also more flexibility about how they integrate their additional, or extra-curricular, life ambitions with their career ambitions.

This is evidenced by the increase in companies allowing sabbaticals and their approach to flexible working. Legislation is also catching up with the times in this area. The Children and Families Act now extends the right to request flexible working to all employees.

With eight million people working part-time in the UK, and 4.2 million UK home workers, flexible working is clearly on the increase. Some believe that law firms have tended to lack pace compared to other forward thinking corporates when it comes to flexible working.

However, for a number of years many firms will have had a flexible working policy, be it formal or informal, which went beyond the minimum statutory flexible working requirements and was open to all employees.

In any event, since 30 June this year, the right to flexible working has been extended to all employees with 26 weeks of service. This is not a right to work flexibly, but a right to make the request.

Under the act, employers have a duty to deal with requests in a “reasonable” manner and within a “reasonable” timeframe. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service has published a code of practice for handling requests and a supplementary good practice code with examples of the reasons for rejecting a request. It encourages both parties to discuss the reasons for the request.  Requests can be refused for one of eight business reasons set out in the legislation (see box, below).

There are, and will continue to be, challenges for law firms, not least balancing the flexible working culture with many clients’ expectations of access to 24/7 legal support. The employer may also have to deal with competing requests – one employee may have childcare responsibilities, while another may want to pursue an interest or sporting activity.

Whether there is a sufficient business reason to refuse a request will, of course, depend on the nature of flexible working request – flexible working isn’t simply working part-time. It can mean anything in terms of being time-flexible from compressed hours or reduced hours, to being location-flexible from working one day a week at home or a different office location.  

Realistically, whether flexible working is an achievable goal for a lawyer will depend on many factors including the change that is being requested, the timing of the request and their practice area.

Business reasons for refusing a request under section 80G (1)(b):

  • The burden of additional costs
  • Detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand
  • Inability to recruit additional staff
  • Inability to reorganise work among exiting staff
  • Detrimental impact on quality
  • Sentimental impact on performance
  • Insufficiency of work during the period the employee proposed to work
  • Planned structural changes

Vanessa Hogan is of counsel at Hogan Lovells