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Law firms ‘must embrace the shift towards flexible working’

Just half are prepared for an increase in flexible working requests

1 July 2014

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By Manju Manglani, Editor (@ManjuManglani)

Law firms need to prioritise flexible working both as a regulatory requirement and a strategic priority, an employment lawyer has said.

The right for all long-service workers to request the ability to work flexibly came into effect yesterday.

The Flexible Working Regulations 2014 replaced a prescriptive statutory regime with a "requirement to deal with the request in a reasonable manner".

"Firms must embrace the shift towards flexible working - rather than just pay lip service to it - if they genuinely wish to attract and retain their most talented and diverse workforce," said Anna Gregory, a partner in the employment team at UK law firm Farrer & Co.

A recent Managing Partner survey found that just 51 per cent of law firms are prepared for a potential increase in the number of people who will apply for flexible working.

The vast majority of respondents agreed that flexible and mobile working are effective means of getting more hours and greater commitment from staff.

Among the law firms that currently offer flexible working, part-time and/or home working are the most popular options, followed by variable working hours.

Under the regulatory changes, employees with more than 26 weeks' continuous service are now able to apply to work reduced hours or to work from home.

"As before, there will be no automatic right to work flexibly, simply a (greatly) expanded group of employees who can request it and a relaxed method for delivering a decision," said Gregory.

"The existing statutory list of valid business reasons for rejecting a flexible working request will stand. A rejection must therefore be by reason of at least one of these."

Naeema Choudry, an employment and labour law partner at international law firm Eversheds, has suggested that, in handling requests for flexible working, employers should take care to avoid the risk of claims of discrimination with potentially unlimited compensation.

"This concern is heightened by the possibility of having to deal with multiple and competing requests when not all can be accommodated. Employers should consider putting a policy in place to avoid value judgements being made which may heighten that risk," she said.

"Trial periods may also play a useful role, particularly if an employer is unsure about whether the arrangements requested can work. The mechanics for such a trial will usually be that the employer and employee agree to an extension of the three month decision period to accommodate the trial period. Claims will be far less likely if employers, from the outset, are clear and honest about any factors which cause concern and manage expectations by maintaining dialogue to ensure the employee is aware of the employer's perception of how the trial is going."

For an analysis of the changes to flexible working and their impact on law firms, see 'Permanently flexible: The future of flexible working in UK law firms'.



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