A new Government initiative came into force on Monday with the aim of giving extra support to working families and boasting economic growth.

All UK employees, regardless of the size of employer, who have worked for their employer for at least 26 weeks, now have the right to apply for flexible working.

Previously the right only applied to parents with children under the age of 17 (18 if disabled).  Business leaders have expressed concern about the additional costs this might involve as well as confusion having to discern who should and should not be given the option. Clearly there is the potential to create friction as well as opportunity.

Flexible working covers everything from work from home to job sharing and flexitime. All employers now have a legal obligation to consider all requests fairly. A request can be turned down on one or more of 8 business grounds. These include:

  • extra costs which will damage the business
  • the work can’t be reorganised among other staff
  • people can’t be recruited to do the work
  • flexible working will affect quality and performance
  •  business won’t be able to meet customer demand
  • a lack of work to do during the proposed working

Employers are concerned about implementation, with right to request cases being considered on a on a first come first served basis. However a wide variety of options are available and current survey evidence suggests the launch of the initiative is not widely known among the workforce in general. Businesses with well-equipped Human Resources functions will no doubt be proactive on the matter to be sure to be seen to be doing the right thing. Very small businesses might find it trickier to deal with. In any event, explanation is going to be important. Consultants will no doubt be developing new products for SMEs: If you employ people it’s important to be up to speed on your new obligations.

The Government expects up to 20m employees will fall under the legislation with flexible working contributing to an improved work-life balance. It could also be argued, that the initiative is also a great leveller, since not everyone can afford to take steps to improve their life-work balance without the support of an employer.

The Government forecasts 182,000 new requests in the first year.