a (very) brief history

Whilst there have been exceptions, it's fair to say that most businesses in the UK have continued on the trajectory set for us during the pandemic regarding best practice when it comes to working arrangements. At the very least, even the most ardent traditionalists have had to consider alternative possibilities. At best, the rest have been busy adopting forward-thinking trends and embracing welcome transformations to our attitudes towards work and traditional employment culture. For the most part, we've collectively grown to embrace our “new norm” and its associated benefits – such as greater productivity, improved work/life balance, access to remote talent, more time with loved ones, and the like.


Herd mentality dictates that should these newfound modus operandi (which would have been perceived as inconceivable for the vast majority not 5 years ago) remain in-situ for any extended period of time, we can soon thereafter expect mass adoption. Well, we've arrived at that point.


From Saturday 6th April this year, employers and employees alike are subject to brand new laws which build upon the foundations laid during the pandemic, touted to “hand employees greater rights to flexible working” and “affect employers significantly if they are not prepared”. However, before we get carried away or suffer a mass exodus in HR departments up and down the country, let's explore what this really means in practical terms for both the employer and employee in the UK.



1) The Right to Request Flexible Working

Previously, requests to work flexibly were limited to a single request per 12-month period, and only available to employees boasting a minimum of 26 weeks continuous employment – on 6th April 2024, we'll observe a dramatic shift.


Critically, from day 1 of employment, employees will have the legal right to make a statutory request for permanent changes to their contract – to include location, hours of work, and days of the week. This can now occur twice in any 12-month period, and further, employers are obliged to respond within 2 months of the request and must consult personally with the employee if they are to reject a flexible working request. Importantly, employees are no longer required to submit a “business case” in justification of their request, as was required previously.



2) Rejecting a Request:

Whilst point 1 may appear highly suggestive or even bias (because it probably is!), an employer can still of course reject a request for flexible working. However, the basis on which they can legally do so will also change from 6th April this year, in that the rejection must comply with a “seven stated reasons” framework. Specifically, a rejection must be expressly communicated by the employer, with an accompanying reason from the following list:


  • An approval of flexible working in this instance will create extra costs that will damage the business.
  • An approval of flexible working in this instance will require redistribution of work which cannot be achieved among other staff.
  • People cannot be recruited to do said work.
  • An approval of flexible working in this instance will affect quality and performance.
  • The business will not be able to meet customer demand if flexible working is approved.
  • The proposed working times are “low periods”, meaning there is a lack of work to do during those hours.
  • The business is planning changes to the workforce.


3) Expected Impact

Despite the news and confirmed changes to the law, employers aren't expected to be inundated with a sudden tsunami of flexible working requests, just because of a shift in employee rights. Quite the contrary. A survey by Acas indicates that as of December 2023, 70% of employees are completely unaware of the law change. That said, this should perhaps be viewed more as indicative of the impact of our traditional working culture (and employer-employee relations), than anything else.


As with many legislative movements and law changes, the likelihood is that there may be operational and logistical teething problems during the early transitional phase (particularly in larger firms for example), but very much business-as-usual thereafter.


More than a problem-causing spanner in the works, these new laws present a now mandatory framework which encourages open and honest dialogue between employers and employees right from the beginning of the recruitment process, following in the footsteps of forward-thinking, pioneering firms that are already excelling in this area. Surely, that can only be a good thing for both employers and employees in the short-term, and the outlook for working culture in the UK in future.


Moving forward

Ultimately, the impending changes to our employment law represent a paradigm shift in the direction and continued development of UK working culture. By embracing flexibility in general, businesses can create the opportunity to attract and retain the best people, but also to invest and demonstrate their endorsement of existing staff by showing a willingness to consider personal requests, discuss options and provide greater autonomy.


To help position employers for seamless adaptation to the new laws, assist with learning about the changes and provide access to necessary support before, during and after implementation on 6th April this year, the Department for Business and Trade has created this dedicated resource. Should an employee submit a request for flexible working before the changes take effect on 6th April, please follow government guidance provided herein.