Flexibility is a change for the better

Frances Barker, employment partner at Blocks Solicitors, explains how temporary changes in terms and conditions can help to avoid redundancies

Frances Barker, employment partner at Blocks Solicitors, explains how temporary changes in terms and conditions can help to avoid redundancies

FLEXIBLE working used to refer to the employee's right to request that the employer considers a change in working arrangements; perhaps hours, days, place of work, term time only, sabbaticals, etc.

While such rights still exist, employers are increasingly taking the initiative themselves, seeking the agreement of employees to changes in working arrangements, in order to reduce costs, improve efficiency and assist survival.

While it is still true that for an employer to change arrangements without right or agreement will be a breach of contract, and risks an unhappy visit to the Employment Tribunal, the recession is an optimum time to ask for agreement.

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If employees are aware that the proposal is part of a drive to cut costs and avoid redundancies, they are much less likely to stand on their rights and refuse to agree to be flexible. Who would rather not have a smaller company car rather than no job (and no car), or 80% of pay for a four day week than no job at all, or work a different shift rather than no shift?

A year of sabbatical, with perhaps just three months pay to keep things ticking over, may be very attractive to those free enough to travel. The time is ripe for flexibility and every cloud has a silver lining. And creative employees, worried about their jobs, wanting to cut their hours, or thirsting to globe trot, are taking the initiative themselves and putting proposals forward.

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The employer should be careful though. Make sure there really is agreement - voluntary agreement. The threat of otherwise having to consider redundancies should be general, not personal, not “jump or I'll push you.” There should be a precise paper trail, reflecting free agreement.

Remember temporary change may be better, with the right to review after say three or six months, when either can choose to go back to the old terms. On the other hand if you want it to be permanently a four day week, agree that it will be permanent; after all it can always be varied back again if there is agreement from both sides.

The Government has gradually rolled out the concept of flexible working. Perhaps the concept has become familiar just in time to be a useful tactic to survive the recession

The above is general comment only, so please take professional advice before action.

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