Millions can work flexible hours under new rules

Productivity and happiness will increase and put an end to 'presenteeism', say ministers

Flexible working will become the norm in all offices, with Britain's workforce happier as a result of the "end of presenteeism", the minister in charge of new rules claims today.

A revolution in the way we go to work starts tomorrow, with 20 million employees across the country entitled to ask for flexible hours, including working from home. Employers will be obliged to consider requests reasonably, and millions are expected to take advantage of the changes.

Jo Swinson, the employment relations minister, told The Independent on Sunday that the changes would boost the economy because productivity would rise with a happier workforce.

But business groups are cautious about the measure, warning that it could be hard for employers to prioritise if they are inundated with requests.

Until now, only parents and employees with other caring duties – about 10 million people – have had the right to request flexible working. Under this measure, three out of five requests have been granted, with a further one in four approved after negotiation.

In an interview with The IoS the Lib Dem minister says: "Sometimes, because this has been a right to request that only parents have had, that can create, in some workplaces, a bit of tension when parents get special treatment."

She said the new rules could involve compressed hours, where individuals do five days' work in four, staggered hours to avoid the stresses of rush hour, or working from home.

"Employers often find that this leads to employees being much more motivated, productive, less likely to leave. So that cuts down their staff recruitment costs. It really can be a win-win," she said.

"You get staff that are happy and more productive and the employers benefit from that as well. And lots of businesses are very positive about this; in a British Chambers of Commerce survey, 70 per cent of businesses reported an improvement in employee relations when they used flexible working.

"We live in a globalised society, we have technology which enables us to be doing work not just from physically being there at the workplace but actually doing so at different times of the day and from different places.

"And rather than it staying stuck in a 1950s mind-set that being at work is about physically being somewhere and it's about long hours and that 'presenteeism' culture, actually it's about achieving what you're supposed to do in your job and doing that in the most effective way. So flexibility isn't a special case; flexibility is just the way that organisations work and they recognise that they can benefit from that."

Ms Swinson acknowledged that there would be some sectors, such as retail, where flexible working would not be practical.

But she added: "A large amount of evidence that shows flexible working is beneficial for the economy.

Neil Carberry, the CBI director for employment and skills, said business welcomed the new rules but added: "It's important to remember that the work still needs to be done, so businesses will have to manage conflicting requests effectively and they retain the right to say no where the company just can't make it work."

John Allan, the national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, said: "Many small businesses already offer flexible working and recognise the benefits of doing so … without the need for a 'right to request'. However, because of the nature of these businesses, there may be occasions where employers have to turn down a request, potentially leaving the staff member unhappy."

Adam Marshall, the director of policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, said: "The new rules make it harder for employers to prioritise requests. They cannot prioritise one employee over another, whereas before you could prioritise those who had childcare responsibilities or carer responsibilities."

However Rachel Jones, the owner of Fit 'N' Fun Kids in Falmouth, Cornwall, said flexible working was "the sole reason for the success of my company.

"Flexible working hours means that we can manage the working hours of our staff to reduce the chance of them leaving, to reduce their stress levels and keep them working for us for as long as possible.

"Managing your workforce is crucial to growth. Yes there's a cost, yes there's a time impact, but in the long run it's going to support the growth of the business."