Ministers are preparing to make flexible working a permanent feature of British life after coronavirus, with plans to strengthen employees’ rights to work from home or ask for different hours.
The government will start a public consultation later this year on how to extend flexible working, potentially ensuring that people who have transitioned to a hybrid of home and office working during the pandemic will be able to maintain that pattern.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is likely to look at ways to strengthen the existing legal right to request flexible working. Under the present rules, employees can formally ask for changes to their working pattern. The employer must deal with the request in a “reasonable manner” and make a decision within three months.
In addition to extending the existing scheme, the plans could go further, with consideration being given to introducing a right to request ad hoc flexible working, whereby people can work from home or change their hours on occasions where it suits them, for example to attend appointments or when their diary is clear. Some government figures want to enshrine a simple legal right to work from home, The Times has been told.
The Conservative manifesto in 2019 said that the party would “encourage flexible working and consult on making it the default unless employers have good reasons not to”.
However, the government’s plans have been given greater impetus by the pandemic and the profound and sudden shift in working practices it has caused.
“Covid has moved the flexible working agenda on years,” a minister told The Times. “As we recover from lockdown there’s lots we can do to keep the freedoms people have gained to set their own working patterns.”
Almost half of working adults are at present spending at least some of their time working from home, according to recent research by the Office for National Statistics. Only 53 per cent of working adults travelled to work at some point between March 3 and March 14. Government advice is currently for people to work at home if they can.
Moves to entrench flexible working could encounter the opposition of Conservative MPs who fear the consequences for businesses that rely on thriving office work