The right to request flexible working arrangements is set to become a reality this year for Irish employees as the government is set to implement the EU Work-Life Balance Directive.
The Minister for Children and Equality said he would soon present a ‘Work-Life Balance Bill’ to the Cabinet with a view to passing it before the Dáil’s summer recess .
This means that employees who also play a caring role, such as parents or caregivers, will have the right to request flexible working arrangements.
However, it is important to note that employers will have no obligation to comply with the request.
We found out what ‘flexible’ working really means and how it can benefit workers and employers.
What is flexible working?
When it comes to flexible working hours, there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
For some, flexible working hours allow them time in the mornings and afternoons for school trips and collections.
For others, it may mean an extended lunch break to care for a loved one.
Karen O’Reilly is the founder of Employmum and Employflex, a human resources company specializing in finding flexible roles for those looking for flexible work.
She said flexible working can also involve compressed hours, full-time with flexibility, annualized hours, job sharing, term-time and part-time.
“Anything that’s not of the traditional nature of tramps in seats between nine and five, we’ll call it flexible,” she said.
Is flexible working more and more popular?
The Covid-19 pandemic has forced many employees to adopt remote or hybrid working models – which fall under the category of flexible working.
Two years later, Ms O’Reilly said flexibility is now the number one priority for most people when looking for a job.
“It’s really an employee market right now,” she said.
“It’s a cliché that’s been rumored at the moment – but it’s definitely true,” she added.
Ms O’Reilly said many people find their current role unsustainable and walk away from companies that have a culture of “presenteeism”.
“People are more attracted to companies that genuinely offer flexible working.
“Companies like Bord Gáis and An Post are genuinely offering this, and I think other companies, whether they like it or not, will now follow because the market dictates,” she said.
She said employers who are not authentic in their offer of flexible and remote work will be left behind.
What impact can the shift to flexible working have?
In 2020, Sandra Gilligan went from working five days a week with little flexibility to working two days a week with full flexibility.
“It’s literally chalk and cheese to know how our life was, how our life is now,” she explained.
Sandra switched to a flexible working model after moving from County Kildare to County Clare with her husband and two children.
She now works remotely as a personal and marketing assistant for Cork-based Pinnaklo.
At her previous job, Ms. Gilligan left home at 7:30 a.m. and did not return until after 6 p.m.
Now she couldn’t imagine working full time with two children under the age of two.
“I can’t imagine going back to this life or inflicting this on my children – they don’t realize you have to go to work, you have to earn money, you have to keep a roof over their heads.
“They just know they get pulled out of bed at 7:30 a.m. and they don’t come home until 6:30 p.m.
“It’s made a huge difference to us, and our lives and I definitely think the household is happier,” she said.
Ms Gilligan said the shorter working week gave her time to carry out life administration tasks during the week, freeing up weekends for family time.
“Now the weekend is ours to spend as we want.
“My kids are small, so it’s nice to be able to hang out with them, take them swimming – I think the flexible role really lends itself to enjoying your weekends to the fullest,” she said.
Ms Gilligan said she believed there was a perception that if you work part-time or have a flexible working arrangement, you are not fully active in the labor market.
She said that was not the case.
“I find that when I’m at work, I’m more productive.”
“I’m not distracted by life events or what happens if someone comes home sick from nursery.
“Now I know that if something unforeseen comes up, I can just shift my workload, take care of it, and then go back and make up for lost time in the evening or the next day,” she explained. .
Legally, don’t we already have the right to request flexible working arrangements?
Asked if employees in Ireland already have the right to request flexible working hours, Linda Hynes, a partner at law firm Lewis Silkin Ireland, said “sort of, but not really”.
Ms Hynes said that while nothing currently prevents employees from requesting flexible working arrangements, employers are generally not obliged to grant them.
She said there has been a code of practice in place since 2006 on how employers should handle requests for part-time work.
What else is included in the new EU directive?
Ms Hynes said the EU’s Work-Life Balance Directive is designed to modernize existing EU legal and policy frameworks to support better work-life balance for parents and carers. .
She said it is also hoped to encourage a more equal sharing of parental leave between men and women and improve the representation of women in the labor market.
Ms Hynes said the Work-Life Balance Bill should be quite broad, potentially extending rights to apply for flexible working beyond working parents and carers.
There are also plans to introduce a specific type of leave to provide five days of unpaid leave for employees who have family members who need help with medical needs, such as hospital appointments.
“This is in addition to what is currently provided under Force Majeure Leave and Caregiver Leave,” Ms Hynes explained.
The bill would also increase the right to breastfeeding breaks from six months to two years.
Certain other obligations of the Directive are not covered by Irish law and will be introduced by new legislation.
This includes the right to two months of non-transferable paid parental leave.
“While up to 26 weeks of parental leave is currently available to all working parents in Ireland, this is unpaid leave,” Ms Hynes said.
“In addition to parental leave, Irish parents are entitled to five weeks of parental leave within two years of the birth or adoption of the child.
“Although the employer is not required to pay the employee during this leave, the employee may be entitled to the statutory parental leave allowance.
“Some employers offer periods of paid parental leave and supplement parental leave payments for employees as part of their family-friendly policies,” she explained.
Ms Hynes said the state could address the issue of two months of paid parental leave by increasing parental allowance from five weeks to eight weeks.
Ireland is already compliant in many areas covered by the Directive.
For example, the directive requires the granting of paternity leave of ten working days.
“Irish employees are already entitled to two weeks of paternity leave which must be taken within 26 weeks of the date of birth or adoption of a child,” she said.
“Ireland also has important parental leave, carer leave and emergency leave provisions in place which are in line with the directive,” she explained.
Is the right to request remote work the same as the right to flexible work?
The bill on the general regime of the right to request remote work was published in January 2022.
It provides a legal framework around which the request, approval or denial of a remote work request can be based.
However, Ms Hynes said the right to request remote work is not quite the same as the right to request flexible working arrangements.
“The EU Work-Life Balance Directive considers requests for flexible working arrangements as including requests for flexible start and end times, requests for compressed working weeks, requests for flexible working hours at different times and demands for reduced hours,” said Ms Hynes.
She also pointed out that the implementation of the work-life balance directive is handled by a different government department than the right to request remote work.
“Teleworking is managed by the Department for Business, Trade and Employment.
“Implementation of the directive Reconciliation between professional and private life is the responsibility of the Directorate for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth”, she specified.
How does Ireland compare to other countries when it comes to the right to request flexible working?
The right to flexible working varies around the world.
The UK grants the right to request flexible working to all employees with 26 weeks of seniority.
France has a number of legislative rights regarding flexible working, including that employees can request reductions in working hours for family reasons and employers can only refuse the request where there are objective operational reasons.
Are Irish companies more open to flexible working following the pandemic?
Ms O’Reilly, of human resources firm Employmum and Employflex, said there was an openness to conversation that did not exist before Covid from the employer.
“I guess we’ve proven that we can do it and we can work productively and we can be trusted to get the job done,” she said.
“Technology allows us to really work from anywhere and so the employers who are really embracing this right now are the ones who are definitely gaining a competitive edge in the job market,” she added.
Ms O’Reilly said they were building a flexible working database, which will offer ‘flexible workplace’ accreditation to genuine flexible employers.
“Companies will need to follow a ten-step plan to get a flexible working badge,” she explained.
Ms O’Reilly said this would hopefully help candidates identify companies offering flexible roles and encourage companies to up their game when it comes to offering flexible working arrangements.