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Workplace Flexibility Stretched

Employment Law

Those striving for a better work-life balance will be pleased to learn that the range of people now entitled to request flexible working arrangements has been stretched. Business may not be so pleased because of the potential organizational contortions this may require.

Since 2010, working Australians have been entitled to request flexible working arrangements whilst their children are younger than school age, subject to an employer’s right to refuse if there are reasonable business grounds for doing so. Examples have included changes in hours, patterns, and location of work.

In July 2013, the range of those who may request flexible working arrangements has been expanded to include those who have the care of children of school age or younger, who are carers, who have a disability, who are 55 or older, or who are dealing with issues of domestic violence in their home.

These new categories likely capture more than half of all workers, meaning that this reform probably represents one of the most significant changes to labour arrangements in Australia since WorkChoices.

A small way in which employers have been helped under the changes is a much clearer set of rules around when such requests may be refused. It is reasonable for an employer to refuse if the new working arrangements would be too costly, if there is no capacity to change the working arrangements of other employees to accommodate the request, if it would be impracticable to change the working arrangements of other employees, if the new arrangements would be likely to result in a significant loss in efficiency or productivity, or if the new arrangements would be likely to have a significant negative impact on customer service.

If an employer elects to refuse the request, they should properly document which of the above reasons are relied upon, and communicate those reasons to the worker. Time limits apply to giving a reply, so these requests must be dealt with quickly.

Working women will continue to struggle with the dilemma of when, and on what terms, they return to work after having a baby.  It is one thing to have legislated rights to return to work on flexible terms; it is quite another for women to expect to be given the same opportunities for advancement in their career if they choose to call upon flexible terms. Similar factors will apply to the new categories of workers also entitled to greater workplace flexibility; while the choice is there, will ambitious employees dare exercise that choice if it means they may be treated less favourably when opportunities for advancement come along?

We would love to hear your stories about how flexibility has been achieved in your workplace, and what some of the practical issues of implementation have been.