July’s announcement that the Flexible Working Bill had received Royal Assent sparked a flurry of media attention about the future of work. The UK government boasted how the legislation offered millions of workers greater flexibility over where, when and how they will work. But while the new law is a step in the right direction, it is not the comprehensive solution that remote work advocates were hoping for.
What does the new bill offer?
Initial excitement about the bill in the news overshadowed some key details. For instance, this is not actually a new law but an amendment to the existing Employment Rights Act 1996. The Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Act 2023 alters this act, making changes to an employee’s statutory right to request flexible work. These changes include:
- Increasing the number of requests: An employee will be able to make two statutory requests in any 12-month period, compared to one request under the current law.
- Faster decision times: The timeframe an employer has to reach a decision will reduce from three months to two.
- Removing the explanation requirement: The Act cuts the requirement for employees to explain what effect, if any, flexible work would have on their employer and how these effects can be mitigated.
The Government has stated that this will become a Day 1 right. This is not detailed in the Act but is expected to be set out in secondary legislation to come into force at the same time as the Act.Unfortunately, these legislative changes do not go far enough. The Act does not give employees a right to flexible work, it merely improves the process for making requests. Furthermore, even though the Act has achieved Royal Assent, the changes are unlikely to come into force until mid-2024. Plus, while the Act requires employers to consult with employees before rejecting a request, employers still ultimately possess the right to reject a request and employees have little recourse. Employers who are hostile or sceptical towards flexible work are unlikely to have their attitudes changed by this new legislation.
Workers crave flexibility
To be clear, there is a huge demand for greater flexibility in the workplace. According to LinkedIn data, the demand for remote work outstrips supply. Remote work offers employees the freedom to live wherever they want without compromising their careers, enjoy an improved work-life balance, or spend more time with their families.
And the benefits of remote work are not limited to employees. Businesses that embrace distributed workforce models can extend their available talent pool beyond their local area or national borders and find talent wherever it exists in the world. This leads to more diverse teams and round-the-clock operations to serve customers anywhere in the world.
Research continually demonstrates the advantages offered by remote work. For instance, the 2023 Remote Workforce Report surveyed more than 1,000 decision makers and employees across North America, Europe, Asia-Pacific and Latin America and discovered some compelling results, such as how 69% of employers saw increased retention after adopting remote work. Similarly, 57% said it is easier to hire and retain talent with a remote workforce. Additionally, only 17% of remote staff said they had thought about resigning, in contrast to 24% of in-office employees. Meanwhile, 72% of employers with an international remote workforce found that productivity had increased.
Companies that refuse to adopt remote work not only miss out on these operational and cost-saving benefits, they also risk losing their top talent to competitors who are willing to offer workers greater flexibility.
Doesn’t go far enoughThe fact is the Flexible Working Act alone is insufficient to create a step change in the flexible working revolution. The legislation is based on a flawed premise that remote work is something that needs to be accommodated, rather than a legitimate alternative. It creates a bureaucratic burden on businesses to receive and process requests from multiple employees; companies can avoid this time-consuming paperwork by simply adopting a flexible work policy for their entire staff.
Certainly, the Act does not go as far as other EU countries. In the Netherlands, it is particularly difficult to refuse a flexible work request, while employees in Finland have the right to start or finish their work three hours earlier or later than their core working hours and most employees can choose where and when they work for at least 50% of their working hours.
So, while the Act is helping to push discussion of an important topic, it is unlikely to have much impact. But the fact remains that remote work remains popular, and companies who fail to recognise this shift and offer flexibility risk losing workers, failing to attract talent, and falling behind the competition.