Greater communication with the rise in Cloud based technologies means that any SME nowadays can take a more flexible approach to their workforce. Gone are the days when everyone simply turned up at nine and went home at five, with weekends off.

The right to request flexible working, entitling employees to apply to their employers for a change to their terms of employment relating to hours or times of work, was introduced in 2002; this right initially applied to limited categories of employee with parental or caring responsibilities. Since 30 June 2014, the right has been radically extended to all categories of employees, provided they have 26 weeks’ continuous employment.

The legal implications of flexible work requests

A request for flexible working may only be refused for entirely legitimate business reasons and these are encompassed in the eight specific grounds set out for rejecting a request. The reason for rejection must therefore be based on one or more of the eight grounds which are: the burden of additional costs; the detrimental effect on the ability to meet customer demand; the inability to reorganise work among existing staff; the detrimental impact on quality and performance; the insufficiency of work during the periods the employee proposes to work and; planned structural changes.

Failure to act in accordance with the laws on flexible working could leave businesses open to legal action for breach of the Flexible Working Regulations 2014 as well as claims for sex discrimination.

A request for flexible working needs to be put in writing by the employee; the employer must then deal with the request “in a reasonable manner” and respond within three months.  Niki Avraam, Partner at Howat Avraam Solicitors comments:  “The extension to the rights to request flexible working recognises the complexities of our modern working lives; all requests must be considered carefully by employers and a genuine assessment made of the real impact on the business.”

Of course, each business is different and the employer will need to assess the pros and cons of any potential change and its impact on the business. If the request is granted then employers will also need to make alterations to the contract of work outlining the new relationship and what is expected of both sides.

Flexible Working and IT Services

One area where flexible working changes will need careful consideration is with the provision of IT services to the employee. Reviewing the provision for one employee flexible working request, could result in a positive change for the entire organisation. Cost effective cloud based solutions such as Microsoft Office 365 allow employees to essentially work from anywhere as long as they have a smartphone, tablet or laptop with an internet connection.

If remote working is not adequately managed with the right systems in place, employees could be using consumer based apps and short cuts which could leave the business vulnerable to security breaches e.g. users could use Dropbox to transfer files to their home PC and GoToMyPC to access their office computer remotely. Working with a reputable IT provider means that you can develop an effective policy for areas such as email, file sharing and access to company data on individuals’ mobile devices. These can be built into any contract changes when working with an employee who wants a more flexible approach to their employment.

For most businesses, agreeing to flexible working for an employee is not just a matter of consent. Whilst denying a request for no other reason than you don’t want it, can lead to litigation and accusations of unfair treatment. Every manager needs to make sure that any practical issues are fully explored and the right IT provision is in place to support flexible working.