U.K. employees now have the right to request flexible work from day 1—but employers may have to bear the brunt of the new measures

Employees have long been yearning for more flexibility in the workplace. For many, it’s such a high priority that the lack of flexibility has become a deal-breaker.

But things might start to look different now. 

In parts of the U.K., new measures that took effect last weekend allow employees to choose flexibility at work from day one.

Employees in England, Scotland and Wales now have the right to request flexible work from the day they start a new job, instead of waiting 26 weeks as per previous legislation. 

Flexible work covers a wide range of workplace arrangements—whether that’s part-time, remote or compressed work—and could differ from employee to employee. 

The new regulation isn’t a substantial change from what was already in place, but it’ll help normalize conversations around flexible working and make it more straightforward for employees to ask for it right off the bat. The purpose of these measures, when they were first approved last year, is to create a “happier workforce” which could help Britain improve productivity, business and trade minister Kevin Hollinrake said.

While flexibility has increasingly become a want in the workplace, it’s not without challenges.  

Why do people in the U.K. care about working flexibly?

The onset of the pandemic forced people to adjust to remote work, but breaking out of it has been harder even with return-to-office mandates. Now, people are fighting to keep some semblance of flexibility. 

In the U.K., that’s translated into higher turnover as 2 million people quit their jobs every year over the lack of flexibility, according to a report by the professional body Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). Flexibility-related perks are what over 50% of the people looking for a new job are in search of. 

Amy Cunningham, founder of employment law firm Cunningham Legal, told Fortune that employees value flexibility because of the productivity benefits it offers. But there’s more to it than that. 

“Where properly managed, the benefits to employers are significant. These include increased productivity/performance, reduced sickness absence and stress, greater employee morale, increased employee retention, and reduced costs in some cases,” she said.

Given the clarion call among employees for flexibility, the potential benefits of the regulation could be huge as roughly 2.2 million people could now have the option to request an arrangement that works best for them. In the long term, that could translate to greater productivity in the workplace—something the U.K. desperately needs.

On the flip-side, limited flexible working options are often more punitive for some parts of the labor force than others, including women, older workers and those with disabilities. However, the new regulation could prove beneficial by allowing people to work in a way that best suits them without impacting productivity or output. 

“There is good evidence that flexible working practices can help recruit and retain staff, particularly those with caring responsibilities, older workers, and those with health conditions,” Ben Willmott, the head of public policy at CIPD, told Fortune

Despite the benefits, employers are worried 

Experts told Fortune that the regulation could potentially be imposed on employers without necessarily helping them. 

“Clearly, flexible working requests create an administrative burden for employers,” Alex Bearman, partner at London-based law firm Russell-Cooke, who specializes in employment law, told Fortune. He gave the example of logistical challenges if multiple team members choose to limit their work hours. In more extreme cases, employers could be slapped with discrimination complaints for refusing employees who are new mothers or have long-term health conditions from working remotely. 

Studies have shown that there are downsides to remote work (which is one form of flexible working) such as proximity bias and disconnect with the team during onboarding, which employers are mindful of.

“Covid has already shifted the parameters of what ‘normal’ working into more remote-based and hybrid spheres, but is not always for the better (for either employers or employees) and, as has become apparent, there are substantial downsides to both these types of working,” said Andrea London, a partner at Winckworth Sherwood.  

The new measures are a tool for employees, but it won’t strip employers of their say on the workplace either. 

While they’ll have to respond to employees’ requests within two months (and not three, like before), they’re also entitled to refuse the request for a number of reasons including a negative impact on the quality of work or performance. Employers also need to discuss with employees before they refuse a request.

As the age-old adage goes, it truly is all about balance. The benefits of flexibility can’t be ignored, which is why the right to request it is now at every employee’s disposal. It could certainly help the broader British workforce, too.

“Although it seems unlikely that a standalone right to work flexibly will be introduced any time soon, the government does appear to view greater flexibility in how we work as something which is likely to benefit the economy as a whole,” Bearman says.

Cunningham thinks that the new regulation isn’t a giant stride towards adjusting to employees’ needs, but is “a small step in what many would consider to be ‘the right direction.’” 

“The hope is that such arrangements will become far more common, and that employees won’t be afraid to ask about flexible working opportunities at a very early stage in the employment relationship,” she said.

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