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Is flexible working the answer to the job crisis?

Last month the right to request flexible working was changed to include employees who have children aged 16 or under – previously this applied to those with children aged 6 and below. By Tom Potbury

Eligible employees can ask to work flexibly but it does not create an automatic right to have the request granted. It is estimated that an extra 4.5 million parents now have this right.

At first sight, this might seem unlikely to spell much change for construction. Fairly or not, the industry has a reputation for hostility to this kind of thing. Employers may fear cost and bureaucracy; employees may fear being perceived to lack commitment.

I’m not going to pretend that every request for flexible working can be granted. But given the times in which we find ourselves, I do suggest we look for positives as well as downsides in this development.

For a start, moving employees to part-time working may be a better alternative to redundancy. Many employers currently need to shrink their workforce. But casting our minds back just two years, the major complaint was a shortage of skilled staff. 

When the industry emerges from its current woes, that problem will resurface. Employers which make too many redundancies now will be handicapped in the race to get back up to capacity. 

Retaining valued employees, but shrinking their cost by making them part-time, may therefore be a better strategy for some. And most employees would prefer a lower-paid job to no job at all. 

Indeed, the benefit of flexible working in improving staff retention has already been seen. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that one in three companies offering flexible working said that it had a ‘major positive effect’ on retention. And ‘lack of flexibility’ is a common reason given by construction professionals thinking of leaving their employer. 

The fear that the legislation will give rise to a flood of requests which can’t be accommodated may also be misplaced. Under the original ‘Right to Request’ legislation, which created a right to request flexible working for parents of children aged six and under, 90 per cent of requests were granted last year.

Obviously, flexible working alone cannot solve construction’s current crisis. But it may be a useful part of the industry’s fightback.  

Tom Potbury is a senior associate in the employment department at law firm Pinsent Masons.

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