On 30 June this year, the right to request flexible working will be extended to all employees who have the relevant qualifying service, not just employees with parental responsibility for a child or caring responsibilities for an adult.
With the abolition of the default retirement age, and the increasing evidence that millions have not saved enough to live the type of life they would like in retirement, are employers likely to see a significant number of requests from their older employees in particular?
According to the recent Global Benefits publication from Towers Watson, more than half of workers admit they need to save more for their retirement, with 58% not being confident that they would be able to afford a long retirement of around 25 years.
On 6 April 2011, the default retirement age in the UK was abolished, meaning that unless employers kept their own contractual retirement ages (which need to be objectively justified) they are now already seeing their employees working beyond the traditional cut-off age of 65.
If 75 is the new 65, and employees are working longer, what will be the impact of the extension of the right to request flexible working? Although the concept of four-generation working (with workers spanning the generations) is going to become increasingly common, studies have also demonstrated that while employees may want to work until they are older, this might not be on a full-time basis right up until they retire.
A recent report by the TUC, Age Immaterial: Women over 50 in the Workplace, highlighted the particular difficulties faced by older women in the workforce. While it was clear from that report that there cannot be a "one size fits all" approach to age and gender, it highlighted the difficulties faced by some women in balancing work with multiple caring responsibilities.
In addition to caring for their parents, older women often provide childcare for their grandchildren as well. With this in mind, it would not be surprising if employers are faced with an increasing number of flexible working requests from this demographic.
So if the prediction is for increased numbers of flexible working arrangements, what can and should employers be doing now to prepare themselves for the new era of flexible working requests?
- Be proactive in approaching flexible working: Employers who bury their heads in the sand about the increased numbers of flexible working requests are likely to be caught out. Employers should review and communicate their flexible working policies to ensure that they will be fit for purpose after 30 June 2014
- Have a fair and consistent process: In reviewing their policies and procedures, employers will need to ensure they are applying ones that are fair and consistent across the workforce. Once flexible working rights are extended, employers need to avoid making 'value judgements' when faced with requests (granting part-time working to a mother who cares for her children while refusing it to a man who looks after grandchildren, for example).
- Don't discriminate in applying the process: Employers will also need to be wary of discussing or suggesting flexible working in a manner which in itself could be viewed as discriminatory. Although ACAS suggested the idea of 'workplace discussions' in its guidance on working without a default retirement age, employers should avoid targeting older employees in such discussions by suggesting they might want to change their work patterns. The key here is to be consistent - have workplace and planning discussions with all employees, and have them often so that you can plan for the business as much as possible.
- Support employees who want to work longer: The value of having a spread of ages across the workforce is obvious - many would argue that having employees with experience who are able to guide and mentor their potential successors is essential to the success of a business. Despite this, in its 2011 Employee Outlook Survey, the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development reported that older workers are much less likely to receive training, with 51% of those aged 65 or over saying they had received no training in the last three years compared to 32% across all age groups. To address this, employers can provide regular and promoted access to training, and fill any 'skills gaps' across the business.
- Train managers: The CIPD's 2014 outlook survey reported that older employees of 55 and over are less likely to be satisfied with their line managers than employees in younger age groups. In addition to skills training, employers should also ensure line managers are trained in the issues relating to flexible working requests, as well as general workplace discussions. If HR is aware of the legal position, but there is a mismatch on the ground, this is likely to lead to claims, as well as leading to resentment in the workplace more generally.
- Review benefit structures: In addition to reviewing policies and procedures that are directly related to flexible working, employers would also be wise to 'plan ahead' and review their benefits as a whole to see how these will fit with a potentially increased flexible workforce. Things like whether the pension scheme provides for employees to draw their pension and continue working? Or will older employees in a final salary pension scheme be detrimentally affected if they want to continue working at reduced hours and, if so, what alternative solutions are available? Planning these things upfront will avoid the need to formulate policies on a reactive basis.
So with four-generation and flexible working likely to increase over the coming years, employers have a lot to think about. But those who plan ahead and give consideration now to the potential impact of flexible working changes on their business are likely to be in a much better position when it comes to implementation. Those who embrace the changes are also more likely to be able to single themselves out as employers of choice who attract and retain the best talent.
This article was originally published on Thomas Reuters.