As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, it has become increasingly common for employers to offer employees a combination of in-office and home working, whether on a temporary or permanent basis. Some employers are even going as far as allowing for exclusive at home working, given the success many organisations have enjoyed over the past 18 months and the considerable benefits working from home has been proven to have in terms of employee wellbeing.

However, despite flexible working (and working from home in particular) being the default position for some employers, this does not seem to be the case for many working mothers. Following a recent survey conducted by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) it was reported that half of the working mothers who responded had reported that their flexible working applications had been rejected, while many of those whose requests had been granted said they had faced discrimination and disadvantage as a result.

The right to request flexible working has been available for some time now. At the moment it is only available to those employees who have been with their employer for at least 26 weeks, but many employers will consider requests from day one. The request can relate to:

  • a change in the number of hours worked by the employee (such as asking for reduced hours or part time working)
  • a change to the times an employee is required to work (such as asking to start earlier and finish earlier)
  • a change to the place where an employee works (such as asking to work at another office or from home)

When presented with a flexible working request, an employer can only reject this for one (or more) of the eight prescribed reasons. These include the burden of additional costs, detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand, inability to reorganise work among existing staff and whether the flexible working will have a detrimental impact on an employee’s quality of work and/or performance. Employers are quite often able to rely on at least one of these grounds and, under the current laws, an employee can make a flexible working request only once in any 12 month period. The fact that employers can usually justify rejecting flexible working requests seems to be at least part of the reason that many women are deterred from making them in the first place.

The TUC survey also found that many women were deterred from mentioning flexible working during interviews, due to a fear of being treated unfairly or discriminated against as a result. The TUC is now calling on the Government to make the right to request flexible working a legal right from day one. This has been supported by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to unlock flexibility in all jobs.

For working mothers, flexible working often makes it much easier to manage their child care responsibilities while still being very productive at work, but the needs of every business will be different and the level of flexibility which can be afforded will usually depend on the role being performed. Businesses will be trying to take advantage of the benefits that more home working can provide, but will not want to lose the increased sense of team working which office based work can provide. There is a careful balance to be struck. However they are likely to lose out on available talent if they do not try to provide what flexibility they can, consistent with the needs of the business. For further information on hybrid working practices, see the recent advice issued by ACAS.

Please contact our employment team if you have any questions about your rights as an employee or an employer, or require any advice in relation to flexible working.