By Max Clarke

Vince Cable spoke yesterday of his plans to exempt SMEs (businesses with 250 employees or less) from extending the right to request flexible working to all. Business Minister, Mark Prisk is currently speaking about these plans at The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) conference. Please see some thoughts below from Lorraine Heard, a partner in the Employment practice at law firm Dickinson Dees, on these plans.

“This is a disappointing decision, and rather short-sighted. In our experience, flexible working doesn't have to impact negatively on SMEs, in fact, we've seen it provide substantial benefits for employers and employees time and again. Entrepreneurism entrepreneurialism

“Perhaps if SMEs had been given more time to prepare for the change, the concerns voiced on their behalf would not have been so negative.

“Our view is that SMEs should not deny themselves the opportunities presented by flexible working. We act for a large number of SMEs, and are aware of the concerns they have had about another administrative and possibly financial burden, given the demands they already face.
However, these concerns seem to arise largely from a fear of the unknown, with cultural issues around trust and a focus on “presenteeism" and also concerns about possible costs.

“Our experience is very much that flexible working shouldn't present a problem and provided that adequate systems are put in place, it can work in an organisation's favour. In many cases, those systems are in place and working well already, as all SMEs already have to offer the right to request flexible working to employees with children aged up to 16, or those with caring responsibilities for adults. However the right to request flexible working in respect of care of a child aged under 18 which was due to be introduced in April is to be removed.
“Flexible working is not just about flexitime - it covers things like working remotely, and hotdesking too.

“The new right will only be the right to request flexible working - not the right to work flexibly. Safeguards are already built into the legislation, so that if it is not commercially feasible to accommodate an employee request, a business can refuse, if the reason for the refusal is one of those envisaged by and listed in the regulations. The dialogue with an employee which the process requires is often very productive, and can result in a mutually satisfactory compromise.

“The positives that can come out of employees having the right to request flexible working practices include increased employee retention, and also perhaps a way to look at flexibility for employees who would like to change their working practices in the move towards retirement, when the default retirement age is abolished later this year.

“The abolition of the default retirement age is likely to lead to a greater demand on the part of older workers to work flexibly - the prospect of continuing to work, but with a change of role involving greater flexibility could be very attractive to eg grandparents over 65. Employers who do not allow some form of greater flexibility may find that they are increasingly having to deal with issues around poor performance or ill health to manage older workers out of the business, and perhaps facing more expensive unfair dismissal and age discrimination claims.”