The Flexible Working Bill has now received Royal Assent, meaning that formal requests for flexible working will be a day one employment right (see our Recent and forthcoming legislation page for more details). This change is expected to come into force on 6 April 2024.

Uptake of flexible and remote working has grown over the past few years. This guide aims to help employers and managers manage flexible working requests, dispel certain myths surrounding flexible working, and consider creative flexible working solutions that go beyond simply working remotely.

Forms of flexible working

There are many flexible working options that employers can offer, including:

  • Staggered hours: This type of flexible working arrangement sees an employee having different start, finish and break times compared to other workers. It could be beneficial for service or manufacturing staff, who often can’t work from home but want more flexibility. A staggered hours system allows workers some discretion, within prescribed limits, to fix the times when they start and finish work. However, once those times have been chosen or agreed with the employer, they remain unchanged, making them different from flexitime working.
  • Flexitime: Choosing when to start and end work, often while maintaining a core set of hours, such as 10am to 4pm every day. 
  • Part-time working: Reducing one’s hours, often by working fewer days a week or working shorter days.
  • Compressed hours: The central feature here is the reallocation of work into fewer and longer blocks during the week – for example, working full-time hours over fewer days, such as a 9-day fortnight.
  • Job sharing: A form of part-time working where two (or sometimes more) people share the responsibility for a job between them and split the hours.
  • Four-day week: This form of flexible working usually involves employees working 80% of standard working for 100% of pay, often with the expectation that employees will maintain normal levels of productivity.  
  • Hybrid working: Where employees travel into the office for some of the week and work remotely for the remainder, usually from home. It has the benefit of allowing organisations to save money by reducing their office space. The CIPD has a range of guidance on implementing hybrid working.

How to respond to flexible working requests

Flexible working requests should be dealt with fairly and reasonably, following both current legal requirements and organisational policy. 

  • Respond promptly: Flexible working requests must be completed, including an appeal if one is offered, within three months. This will reduce to two months when the new flexible working legislation comes into effect. However, employers and managers should seek to respond to requests as quickly as they are able to do so, to ensure no loss of engagement or motivation.  
  • Fully consider requests and explore options: Although it might not be possible to agree to every request, employers and managers are able to consider other options or put other suggestions to the employee if they cannot accommodate their preferred working pattern. Managers should be encouraged to treat a flexible working request as a dialogue rather than a yes/no decision.
  • Encourage trial periods: Trial periods can give important insight into the feasibility of flexible working arrangements. They can be especially helpful where roles have not been undertaken in a flexible way previously. Trial periods should always be for a set period of time during which their outcomes are measured and assessed. Unless it is immediately evident that a request cannot be accommodated, a trial period should always be considered as an option. 
  • Train managers: Ensure that managers are aware of forthcoming changes to the flexible working legislation and how this might impact the number of requests they receive, and when they receive them. Although employees will soon be able to request flexible working from their first day of employment, this is also likely to result in discussions taking place during recruitment activity. Managers should be provided with guidance on managing flexible working requests during this time, including assessing roles for flexible suitability where they have not been worked flexibly previously.  
  • Focus on recruitment: Be proactive. Candidates are increasingly interested in flexible working opportunities, and it can be a key driver of individuals looking for new jobs. Employers can make the most of this by proactively providing information on the organisation’s flexible working opportunities at all stages of the recruitment process.  

A note on legal considerations

When an employer agrees to a formal flexible working request at any stage in the employment relationship, it will often result in a permanent change to an employee’s contract of employment. This might not be true of a trial period (where changes are intended to be temporary) or if there is an informal agreement, such as a hybrid working arrangement where employees can informally work remotely at the discretion of their manager.

Employers are advised to be clear in their policies, communications or employee documentation whether flexible working arrangements are contractual or informal, and if there are any circumstances in which they could be changed.  

Where permanent changes are agreed as part of a flexible working request, these should be confirmed in writing to the employee. The employer will not have any automatic right to change the employee’s hours or work arrangements in the future.  
An employer can make a change (‘variation’) to an employment contract if:

  • the employee agrees to the change
  • the employee’s representatives agree to the change (for example, a trade union) if the contract of employment provides for this.

Such changes could include an amendment to working hours. For example, if an employee’s contract normally involves varying shift patterns, the contract may set out the minimum number of hours the employee is required to work. Employers may then be able to change those shift patterns, provided the employee is still being asked to work their agreed number of hours and there is no discrimination in the new patterns.

Creating a culture of flexible working

As interest in and requests for flexible working increase, organisations will need to not only manage those requests according to legal and policy requirements, but also create the culture in which flexible working can thrive.  

Here we outline key recommendations to help organisations encourage a culture of flexible working while ensuring requests are dealt with in a fair, consistent manner:

  • Make sure to revisit flexible working policies regularly to ensure they accurately reflect the options available to employees.
  • Clarify the benefits of flexible working to the organisation, line managers and employees; find the compelling hook or business imperative that will gain traction in the organisation.
  • Communicate to dispel myths around what flexible working is and who it is for; share examples of successes and flexible working role models.
  • Try to encourage a creative approach to flexible working for all employees – even in job roles that haven’t traditionally been seen as suitable for flexible working. Other organisations have successfully done so before. Communicate that trial periods are available.
  • Aim to hire flexibly and design the jobs to suit the flexible pattern (for example, make sure full-time jobs are not squeezed into part-time hours).
  • Advertise the organisational approach to flexible working and specific flexible working arrangements available as part of recruitment processes, and explain clearly to job applicants how they can begin a conversation about working flexibly.
  • Train line managers in having conversations about flexible work – and encourage them to do so proactively with their teams.
  • Ensure ongoing access to development and career conversations for flexible workers. Historically working flexibly has been associated with reduced opportunities for those employees – and it is often a key concern of flexible workers.
  • Set the organisational context and consider organisational facilitators and barriers, including creating a supportive organisational culture, underpinned by leadership and HR support.
  • Gain manager buy-in through communicating benefits, sharing success stories, and providing support and guidance.
  • Identify the potential barriers to effective flexible working at line manager, team and individual level, and consider how they can be overcome.
  • Measure and evaluate flexible working, and learn from trials using quantitative and qualitative measures. Helpful measures include flexible working update, acceptance or rejection of flexible working requests, as well as the engagement scores of flexible workers.

These recommendations were informed by our research into the approaches organisations have taken to flexible work in different sectors and industries. Use our guide and case studies to explore the insights in depth. 

Implementing successful flexible working regardless of sector and role

The motivation, wellbeing and engagement of employees can all be enhanced by offering flexible working arrangements. CIPD research has shown that it’s possible to implement flexible working in an effective, creative way even in sectors like healthcare, transportation, education, construction, transport, automation, and manufacturing – sectors seldom viewed as ‘flexible’. Here are some tips to consider for implementing flexible work arrangements, based on research conducted by Dr Charlotte Gascoigne:

  • Make sure you involve line managers from the get-go; they can differentiate the tasks employees perform at specific hours from those they can tackle outside these hours. To maximise flexibility of hours, think about how tasks can be shared or covered at the team level as well as within jobs. 
  • Proactively embrace a team-based approach to designing work, supporting managers to co-ordinate patterns of availability between team members to cover the required time slots. 
  • Multi-skilling or building ‘substitutability’ between team members can help create more flexibility of hours, even in jobs with very specific hours requirements. Look to develop multiple skills and provide training to support teams to fill in and substitute for one another.
  • To cover specific hours of service, support line managers to involve the team in agreeing to, and then rostering, shifts and working patterns. This can be a useful principle to follow wherever the hours of operation prove longer than the employees’ contracted hours. This is reasonably straightforward in 24/7 environments or those with long operating hours (such as retail or customer contact centres), but it may be helpful to roster the ‘shoulder’ periods in organisations which operate Monday to Friday, 8am to 6pm.  
  • Make it an organisational responsibility to ask people about their flexibility needs – maybe at annual review or budget time – rather than reactively waiting for individuals to make requests. This is particularly prescient when it comes to the types of work that are heavily dependent on hours; being proactive in assessing their needs gives employees’ a framework to think through the options that work for the needs of the organisation too. 
  • Work with managers to build in an understanding of everyone’s preferred working patterns. Present this as a consultation process and manage expectations about what’s possible. Where the work allows little flexibility of hours across the team, find out what each individual’s most cherished requirement is – the one thing that would make the biggest difference to them and their lives.
  • Wherever teams need to share the cover of operating hours, invest in team rostering software and apps which give individuals as much input as possible into their working patterns. Individual input is critical for creating work-life balance in these environments. 
  • Wherever teams need to share the cover of operating hours, invest in team rostering software and apps which give individuals as much input as possible into their working patterns. Individual input is critical for creating work-life balance in these environments. 
  • Be clear about the degree of formality involved in any change to flexibility of hours, and whether this is a permanent arrangement or a change to terms of employment. Employee consultation is the key principle, and policy needs to articulate expectations and practice. 

Explore Dr Charlotte Gascoigne’s research to understand the strategies needed to make a success of hybrid working. See the accompanying guidance, produced for HR and line managers, for the practical lessons learned from the pandemic.

Summary

All flexible working requests should be managed fairly and reasonably. Part of enabling flexible working is to create a supportive culture in which benefits are recognised and creative solutions are sought.  

Communicating the different types of work arrangements on offer, including during recruitment activity is key especially for roles which do not historically lend themselves to working remotely. It can also help to make flexible working part of talent acquisition strategy.
  
Involve teams in ensuring that flexible work is effective and adapting ways of working, and ensure line managers are on board at all times. This will help employees work collaboratively when they may be working different hours or present in the physical workspace on different days compared to their colleagues.

Trial flexible working arrangements for a set period of time wherever possible; this will identify what works and pinpoint any problems which might arise. Any issues highlighted in the trial can then be adjusted before making any changes permanent. Remember – flexible working is possible across many sectors and roles

Going forward, making flexible working requests a day-one right for employees will be transformational in allowing people to work how, when and where they feel they perform at their best. It will also help forward-thinking organisations become more competitive to attract the best and most diverse talent.

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