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The Covid-19 pandemic has acted as a catalyst for change when it comes to working practices and there's been a fundamental shift in the dynamic between employers and employees. In the current environment employers must be prepared to listen to the needs of staff and adapt accordingly. 

Flexible working

Flexibility is key and offering a flexible and personalised approach to working locations, hours and overall practices is a way of promoting employee satisfaction as well as boosting disability and support for working families.  There are also legal changes to the flexible working regime on the horizon which employers need to be aware of.

The government has recently responded to its consultation, 'Making flexible working the default', which closed on 1 December last year. It emphasised that a key principle underpinning the changes is the recognition that there is no one-size-fits all for flexible working and individual agency and choice are key. The onus is on employers and employees having constructive, open-minded conversations to find arrangements that work for all parties.
The government confirmed that flexible working will become a day one right.  The eight business grounds for rejecting a flexible working request will remain as they are. There will be a new obligation on employers to consult with the employee to explore the available options before rejecting a flexible working request.  

The administrative process for making a request will be changed so that, instead of only being able to make one statutory request for flexible working in a 12-month period, an employee will be able to make two. Currently employers have three months within which to respond to the request; this will be reduced to a two-month period to make the process more streamlined. The government believes such changes support the overall policy objective of normalised flexible working.

Another change on the cards is that employees will no longer be required to set out how the employer might deal with the effects of their flexible working request. The government believes that, instead of the employee bearing the sole responsibility of setting out the business case, employers should be better at engaging with employees to jointly understand the impact of a request.
The government has said that it will develop enhanced guidance to raise awareness and understanding of the framework round making requests for flexible working, and will issue a call for evidence on how informal flexibility works in practice "in due course".

All the changes, other than the introduction of a day one right to make a flexible working request, will have to be taken forward by means of primary legislation.  The government has already committed to supporting a Private Member's Bill, the Employment Relations (Flexible Working Bill), which is currently going through Parliament so it may not be too long before the changes come into effect.

Inclusivity and representation

Employers need to be aware of the importance of developing an inclusive culture to enable employees to know that they are being heard, seen and valued in the workplace and are safe to be themselves at work. Among other things, employers should be aware of, and supportive of, neurodiversity, the menopause, gender identity and caring responsibilities. Employees who feel valued will be more productive and engaged.

The Equality Act 2010 contains positive action provisions which enable employers to encourage people who share a protected characteristic to overcome or minimise the identified disadvantages, or participate in activities in which they are under-represented. Offering mentoring or shadowing opportunities, targeted training courses or positive action in recruitment can all be ways of moving towards a more inclusive environment.

Mental health and wellbeing

Since the pandemic there's been an increasing awareness of staff vulnerability.  When it comes to managing mental ill health, Acas has produced various pieces of guidance, 'Managing staff experiencing mental ill health, 'Dealing with stress in the workplace' and 'Promoting positive mental health in the workplace' which it's useful to refer to. Employer may also wish to consider instituting wellness action plans (WAPs) for staff. Mind has put together a guide for line managers on WAPs which makes it clear that they are not necessarily just for those experiencing mental health problems, and can be useful for all employees to help identify how an individual's wellbeing can be proactively managed.

Putting in place a wellbeing strategy (which should cover three interconnected areas – physical, mental and financial wellbeing) is a great way of demonstrating that an employer is committed to its staff. An effective strategy should be tailored to individual organisational needs.

Engage in dialogue and demonstrate your values

Consider implementing an ESG strategy. Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) criteria are an increasingly important way of showing that an employer has values which it believes are important. Many employees will want to feel that their employers are driving changes and have a sustainable business strategy. People want to work for an organisation that shares their values and for many an employer having an ESG strategy in place will be a must-have.

Finally, keep lines of communication open. Engage in a dialogue with employees and invest the time to get things right. The culture and values displayed by the employer will be a very important way of attracting and retaining employees, and these values should be clear and transparent and reflected in day-to-day practice. Employees who feel that their suggestions are being taken on board will more engaged and motivated and are more likely to give their best to an employer who takes the time to listen.