What Is Flexible Working? A simple question, but one that many small businesses (SMEs) aren’t sure how to answer. Whether or not they can answer it, evidence collected in a new report by ACCA (the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants), written in conjunction with the UK All-Party Parliamentary Small Business Group, shows that SMEs are often actively engaged in offering flexible working opportunities to their staff, even if they are unaware that what they are providing is ‘flexible working’.

Flexible working practices, such as part-time hours or job sharing, provide businesses with several advantages, because they allow businesses to retain the services of staff who may want to reduce their work hours, or allow them to attract staff they otherwise could not afford. Crucially, in times of economic difficulty, flexible working provides employers with plenty of flexibility themselves. There is also a positive environmental angle, with fewer people needing to commute as they work from home, less office space needing to be resourced, or even just less congestion as people work staggered hours.

The informal usage of flexible working helps reduce paperwork and costs for both employer and employee, but the report shows that in the UK, the formal right to request flexible working could soon be extended to SMEs. This could increase the administrative burden for SMEs just as the economy is attempting to recover from recession. SMEs comprise approximately 99% of all firms, employ between them about 65 million people and are responsible for driving innovation and competition

For flexible working patterns to continue developing, much support needs to be given to smaller companies. To prevent vulnerable SMEs being hit with new costs or inappropriate working practices, Governments have to ‘think small first’ and any new legislation needs to be designed from the bottom up and then adapted to the needs of larger companies. There are several ways to do this:

Flexible working needs to be designed based on the business model of each SME and the demands of the particular positions, rather than being imposed through legislation, which would place a significant administrative burden upon them and risking exposing then to a significant competitive disadvantage. However, while employers must consider flexible requests on their merits, it is vital that SMEs, with small staff numbers and limited administrative resources, while considering such request, maintain the right to refuse any flexible working request if they are likely to damage the business.

More research in this area is needed, both at national and EU level. There is currently a real dearth of thorough longitudinal data which can show how small businesses have responded to past legislation changes.

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