Recent changes in employment law have reshaped the business landscape in the UK and beyond. As of last month (April 6, 2024), labor laws in the UK give people even more rights around requesting flexible work arrangements.

“Flexible working is defined as working arrangements in which the amount, timing, or location of work, can be varied to suit the individual employee in the role.” – CIPD.

The new legislation offers all team members more flexibility, no matter how long they’ve worked at a company—and applies to global companies with people based in the UK.

However, with many organizations already adopting more flexible work models, the question is: How well does this new legislation align with the evolving needs of today’s modern workforce?

What is the UK flexible working law?

Before the new flexible working legislation, people needed at least 26 weeks’ tenure at a company to be eligible to submit a flexible working request and were limited to one request every 12 months. In their request, they had to outline any potential impact their proposed change might have on the company and suggest practical solutions to address these effects.

For example, a customer success manager may request to change their working hours so they can take the afternoons off to care for their aging parents. In outlining how this might affect their role, they may reference potential delays in communication with clients who operate on a typical 9 AM to 5 PM schedule. Their suggested solution may be to ensure availability for key clients by planning all meetings for the mornings or using customer relationship management (CRM) tools to monitor and respond to customer inquiries efficiently.

With the new legislation, anyone can make a flexible working request right from their first day on the job. They can submit two statutory requests within 12 months (though not simultaneously). The new law also no longer requires people to provide their employers with details about the potential impact the change they’re requesting might have on the company (or suggestions about how to address it). 

The updated law also includes new guidance for employers. It requires them to consult with individuals before denying any flexible working request, and the response time for handling these requests has been shortened from three months to two months. 

How does the new legislation fit into the modern world of work?

The rise of flexible working

Since March 2020, when lockdowns led 1.3 billion people to start working from home full-time, the world of work has transformed dramatically.

Many modern professionals are no longer bound by long daily commutes, the traditional nine-to-five workday, and the choice between caregiving duties or going to the office. Flexible work is now the norm.

In fact, 72 percent of UK employers offer total work location flexibility for their people, while 44 percent offer a structured hybrid work model. Globally, 62 percent of people aged 22 to 65 claim to work remotely at least occasionally. Meanwhile, Gen Z demands a strong work-life balance.

Flexibility isn’t just a checkbox exercise or trending topic—it’s the currency of modern employment. Whether working from a different country or having more training opportunities, today’s workforce demands more than just a good paycheck.

Aligning with the modern workforce

Before 2020, people would consider the right to request flexible work twice a year a major step forward. In theory, the law would help individuals adapt their work schedules to their personal needs. To some extent, these small changes will help HR to drive a people-first culture—encouraging open communication, ensuring quicker resolutions, and demonstrating a commitment to individual wellbeing.

Yet, the new regulations fail to align with reality; for modern companies, this is nothing groundbreaking. This latest legislation is a step in the right direction, but it’s just the beginning. It’s a decision that feels responsive rather than proactive in driving a more flexible workforce. 

The most successful businesses today go beyond the basics to attract and retain top talent. They keep their people engaged, loyal, and productive with people-first, flexible working policies that easily adapt to life’s demands.

In many cases, the updated law still falls short: It only offers people the option to request flexibility twice a year, but life often demands more In fact, according to HiBob research, flexibility would encourage over half of Brits (53 percent) to take a new job, second only to a pay increase.

Companies that embrace flexible work models hold onto their people and enjoy lower attrition rates (and let’s not forget that it costs between six to nine months’ salary to replace someone rather than to retain them!). 

Recognizing the nuances of flexible work requests

In the modern world of work, the most successful employers maintain an ongoing dialogue with their people. Some team members may work for years without making a single flexible working request, while others may make multiple requests as their circumstances evolve.

Flexibility means recognizing that everyone has different needs—there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. People will experience good times, like becoming parents or pursuing further education, and challenging times, such as caring for sick family members. It’s particularly during these tough times that a people-focused employer will step up and offer support.

The law’s update reducing the employee’s response time from three months to two months is a minimal adjustment with little impact. Most flexible work requests are driven by necessity, not choice. When a person requests flexibility, it’s not because they want a morning lie-in or warmer day-to-day climes. The likelihood is that external pressures and personal circumstances require that person to adjust their working pattern. In these circumstances, waiting two to three months for a decision isn’t practical (and if they don’t have flexible options, they may have to resign). A swift response is crucial if the request is due to a partner’s job relocation or a major lifestyle change.

So, while the new legislation takes a uniform approach to flexible work requests, it’s up to HR to consider the nuances. Each request is unique, and understanding these differences is key.

What should HR do in response to the legislation?

It’s up to HR leaders to take point and ensure compliance with the law while fostering a healthy, people-first work environment that aligns with their people’s expectations. 

By embracing flexibility as the “new norm,” they will gain an advantage in the race for top talent and promote a happy and engaged workforce. 

People with a better work-life balance are more productive, engaged, and happier and have better job loyalty and satisfaction. Reduced absenteeism and better business outcomes mean businesses committed to flexibility will see better results.

Plus, in a tight labor market, flexible working can help address skill and labor shortages by allowing organizations of all sizes to hire a more diverse workforce and boost productivity.

In response to the new legislation, HR teams can enhance their processes where needed and upskill the relevant people in a few key ways.

Process and admin review

The first step is to review current flexible working policies and procedures to determine what changes are needed to comply with the expanded flexible working legislation. This is a great chance for employers to re-evaluate how they handle flexible working requests. Additionally, providing managers with the appropriate training ahead of these changes is essential.

For HR, this is an opportunity to reassess and refine processes. Businesses affected by these changes need to consider potential increases in workloads, review how they accept and follow up on requests, and ensure timelines and resources are in place to deliver prompt responses. Flexible and efficient processes that include meeting with individuals to discuss their requests as quickly as possible are vital. Improving and automating processes that empower managers to handle these conversations effectively is critical.

Manager training

With more people able to make statutory flexible working requests and businesses having less time to respond, managers need to receive appropriate training. 

The most successful initiatives by HR to comply with the new regulations will offer refresher and update sessions for managers. This ensures they understand the changes and how to handle flexible working requests openly and fairly.

To promote people-first cultures driven by empathy, it’s imperative that managers receive equality and diversity training to understand the various circumstances prompting flexible working requests, such as caregiving responsibilities or religious beliefs. This will help managers approach these requests with empathy and give careful consideration to the reasons behind them, especially if they relate to a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010.

Global companies

The new UK flexible working law will impact global companies with people based in the UK. It is important that these companies review their HR policies to comply with the new UK regulations, including ensuring all UK team members are aware of their rights and developing localized versions of their global policies (or adding specific clauses addressing UK laws). Workflows may need to be re-evaluated to ensure timely responses, and companies may look to dedicate more resources to managing these requests. This may also be a good opportunity to look at your flexible working policies across all of your sites and consider how to make them as equitable as possible no matter the policies of different geographies. 

Flexible working: The law and beyond

Flexibility is a cultural cornerstone that starts with aligning the company’s ambitions with its core values. If trust is a key value, but team members are tied to their desks 9-5, five days a week, it’s time to address that disconnect.

The new regulations are a positive step. They raise the baseline for organizations yet to start thinking about flexible work, and make flexibility a continuous conversation rather than a one-off request. But does this truly align with the evolving needs of today’s modern workforce?

Ultimately, people working for modern organizations already expect this level of flexibility as the bare minimum. For these individuals, the new regulations will feel reactive rather than proactive and are unlikely to significantly change their working patterns.

The real challenge is understanding the diverse needs behind people’s requests. Happy people are easy to support, but those facing challenges need swift attention. Moving forward, the key is to focus on faster response times and understand that flexibility isn’t restrained by annual limits to truly embrace a modern, flexible culture.

Rebecca Daniels

From Rebecca Daniels

Rebecca is a Diet Coke-powered wordsmith at HiBob. By day, she's cooking up content marketing magic. By night, she's cozying up with a book or baking in her kitchen—because life’s too short for bland content and tasteless treats.