Within the vast sea of employment rights, most employees are vaguely aware that they have some sort of right relating to flexible working. To be clear, there is no “right” to work flexibly. All employees with at least 26 weeks service have the right to make the request once every 12 months. Employers are obliged to consider the request and may only refuse on certain business grounds, such as cost or performance. In reality, the reasons an employer is legitimately allowed to give cover most genuine and sensible business concerns.

Does this article suggest that flexible working is not taken up as much as the government may have intended? Well yes, it does. There are many advantages to working flexibly, including reduced commuting time and staff retention, and often the direct cost to employers of ‘unchaining an employee from the desk’ is not high. Employers have to balance this with the school of thought that people are more productive in an office environment. Any decision an employer eventually makes will obviously depend on the specific work of the business and the individuals concerned, as well as the suitability of the employee’s home environment for the tasks required. In addition, granting a request could trigger a domino effect with lots of other workers wanting to do the same thing, which may not be manageable.

A sensible way to approach flexible working is to introduce a trial period ahead of making any firm contractual changes to an employee’s existing terms. This is an approach that is often used by employers who are open to the idea of flexible working, but who are at the same time anxious about the impact of flexible working on business productivity.

It’s also important for any employer faced with a flexible working request to take care not to infringe other employment rights inadvertently. The flexible working legislation itself provides a procedure that must be followed relating to consideration of the request and communication of the outcome. Failing to do that risks exposing the employer to a challenge by a disgruntled employee of detrimental treatment (e.g. missing out on a promotion opportunity) or even discrimination as a result of having made the request.

So yes, employers should take flexible working requests seriously. The right of an employee to have the request properly and fairly considered is set down in the law. But ultimately, whether it is right for the business – which it often can be – remains within the control of the employer, who has the right to say no, as long as this decision is fairly reached and properly communicated.