Flexible working rights to be extended

SHAUN LOWTHORPE The government introduced the right to request flexible working for parents with children under six in 2003, and in April that right will be extended to those who care for elderly or sick relatives.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

In a decade's time we may find the idea of a 9 to 5 job based in a single workplace a quaint concept.

Today the rapid growth in mobile technology - phones, internet, laptops - means that many people won't even need to venture into an office to do their jobs.

But though the technology is in place, attitudes are taking a bit longer to catch up.

The government introduced the right to request flexible working for parents with children under six in 2003, and in April that right will be extended to those who care for elderly or sick relatives.

Children's minister Beverley Hughes wants to go further and give all 29m people the right to ask for flexible working.

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But would such a move prove a logistical nightmare for businesses? And would it every make it into a post-Blair Labour manifesto?

Caroline Williams, chief executive of Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, said she would prefer to see a commonsense approach to the issue without resorting to legislation.

"There has to be a balance between employees having the right to ask for it and the employers have to have the right to refuse," she said. "It's quite good for a company to have some flexibility and you would be surprised how many companies are for it.

"But where you have got more specialist talent or skills, it's very difficult because there isn't an employee pool in the workforce to fill the gap. I wouldn't want it to be law as there's enough regulations to plough through now without adding to it."

Suzy Carter, assistant regional director of the CBI, East of England, said: "The right to request flexible working has worked well so far, helping working parents balance their lives and employers retain their experienced staff. It is important though that any extensions are brought in over a period of time, to avoid a deluge of requests and to allow employers to accommodate the varying needs of their staff."

Paul Awcock, head of human resources for recruitment at Norwich Union, said the firm encouraged managers to exercise their own discretion. The firm has piloted a number of initiatives including a '9-in-10' shift pattern where staff can elect to do 10 days of work in nine and have the next day off.

Julian Campbell, head of operations from Business Link, Norfolk, said while flexible working hours offered benefits to business, employees had to be aware that flexible working wasn't a guaranteed right, particularly in smaller businesses and a commonsense approach was needed.