Return to the office threatened by new flexible working rules –

All employees in the UK will be able to request flexible working patterns when they start a new job, potentially derailing plans to bring workers back to offices in city centres. 

Millions of workers will be able to make such requests immediately rather than having to wait 26 weeks under proposals set to be announced by the Department for Business as early as next week.

Ministers are understood to have put the plans in place before the 2019 general election, but the need to implement the changes has become more urgent following the huge shift in working patterns during the pandemic. 

The proposed changes mean that staff will be able to request flexibility over the time, location and hours of their work, Sky News reported. Existing rules that allow employees to make such requests after six months have been in place since 2014.

The change comes as a further blow to plans for a mass return to the office that would breathe life back into city centres.

Boris Johnson last week raised the prospect of a return to work from home guidance, or even a further lockdown, if Covid cases surge this winter.

The downbeat winter plan sparked anger from business groups, which warned that companies were being left in the dark by the lack of clarity in government guidance.

Hannah Essex, joint executive director of the British Chambers of Commerce, said any changes to the rules must be accompanied by clear guidance so both businesses and employees fully understood their legal position. 

She said: “Providing flexible options is not just about working from home – there are many jobs where this just isn’t an option, but across all sectors and workplaces there are a great deal of possibilities including job sharing, self-rostering of shifts and compressed hours.”

“A recent BCC survey found three in four firms are likely to have some staff working from home for the next year, but they are also looking at other flexible practices to make sure their overall arrangements work well for their business and their staff.”

The plans are separate to proposals tabled by the Government’s flexible working taskforce, which was set up earlier this year to produce advice for employers and employees on the practical and legal issues associated with hybrid working.

A Whitehall source said flexible working made jobs “more accessible to under-represented groups such as women, disabled people, parents and carers, giving employers access to a wider pool of talent”.

A Government spokesman said: “As is set out in the 2019 manifesto, the Government is committed to consulting on making flexible working the default unless employers have good reason not to – boosting business productivity and helping even more workers to join the labour market. Our proposals will be published shortly.”

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