A few years back, only carers and parents of children under 17 had the statutory right to ask to work flexibly, but from June 30th 2014, that changed. Now anyone with 26 weeks’ continuous service can apply for a change to their working patterns.

While it can empower employees to feel more in control of their working life, the ability for any member of staff to raise a flexible working request has understandably raised concerns among many business owners.

If you’re having nightmares about how you’re going to deal with a glut of flexible working requests, you’re not alone. But there are huge benefits to be had if you can embrace this change, such as:

  • increased productivity
  • lower absence rates
  • better staff retention and higher morale

In fact, 43% of employees said that the opportunity to work flexible hours is the top health and wellbeing benefit which makes or would make them feel most satisfied in their role1.

With flexible working clearly a very desirable benefit and one that could help you attract (and keep) employees, how can you make it work for your business and what are the risks if you get it wrong?

The legal bit

As an employer, you’re under no obligation to grant requests, but you must have a good business reason for rejecting them, such as lack of work available during proposed working times or costing the business too much to implement.

First and foremost, any decision you make should be a business one, not based on people’s personal circumstances or whether they’re more deserving than others.

There is a chance an employee may take you to an employment tribunal if they feel they have been unfairly treated, but Acas says it is not expecting the change to generate a flood of new cases.

Trial it

To ease yourself in gently, give flexible working a trial run over a fixed period to see how it goes. Monitor the results closely and get regular feedback, both from staff who’ve changed their working patterns and those who haven’t. As with most new policies, you may have to keep tweaking it until it’s working smoothly across the business.

Communicate your objectives

As long as you clearly define what is expected of someone working flexibly you won’t have difficulty achieving your objectives. In fact, you’ll probably achieve them quicker. For example, someone working on a special project may focus better at home, instead of in an open plan office where there are interruptions and distractions from colleagues.

Clearly communicating deadlines and expectations upfront avoids any misunderstandings later on.

Train line managers

Line managers and team leaders may not always be convinced about the merits of flexible working as they’re the ones having to deal with the extra admin and challenges of communicating with people working remotely. Make sure they understand the commercial benefits of flexible working, and train them properly in how to adopt it within their teams.

Trust your staff

These days, many jobs don’t have to be done in an office. We’re better connected than ever before, so there’s no reason why your staff can’t work on their own initiative. Managers often worry that employees will slack off if they’re not being supervised all the time, and lines of communication may break down. But in fact, by trusting people to do a good job, levels of productivity and engagement usually improve.

Online tools such as Google Hangouts and ooVoo allow you to have virtual meetings with your staff if necessary.

1 Employee Benefits Research survey, 2013