Flexible working or a flexible workplace?

Every employee in the UK, provided they have been in the same job for six months, can now make a request to their employer to be allowed to work "flexibly". Employers have the legal obligation to supply an answer and to "provide a valid reason if they cannot say yes".

According to BBC News "flexible working" can mean: Part-time working, flexi-time, job-sharing, working from home or remotely, compressed hours, term-time working or agreeing annual hours.

There are, according to ACAS, a number of legitimate reasons for refusing that include:
• Burden of additional costs
• Inability to reorganise work among existing staff
• Inability to recruit additional staff
• Detrimental impact on quality
• Detrimental impact on performance
• Detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand
• Insufficient work for the periods the employee proposes to work
• Planned structural change to the business

Many businesses already allow staff to have such flexibility and commentators have suggested that the new legislation will have little impact. It does however bring the question of home working and flexible working practices into sharp focus. Will the result be an increase in people looking to work from home? What impact will this have on the demand for office space? Will even more home based workers mean an increase in vacant office buildings?

I'm not sure that it will.

The fact is that home working is not always easy. Not everyone has the facilities to work from home and there is more to going to work than just sitting at a desk (well - there should be!). There are those "water cooler" moments, conversations and opportunities to feed off the ideas and experience of others.

Teleconferencing is fine for those in different cities and countries, but conference calls are not great substitutes for face-to-face meetings with colleagues.

And what of those who have little experience of the workplace? What if they have a minimal level of "the culture of work"? Working from home may suit someone with a career spanning decades as they know what is needed, but would it suit a school leaver? Giving a fresh-faced teenager a laptop, a broadband connection, a smart phone and the green light to work from home could be seen by some as a recipe for disaster!

On the assumption that more people will take up the chance to "work flexibly" maybe will we see more "flexibility" built into the workplace? Will we see an increase in hot-desking and collaboration space and, if so, what does this mean for the office market?
Perhaps it is timely that JLL has recently published its report "Forget the Workplace... for Now", that suggests at "a new approach that contradicts the one-size-fits-all thinking behind then current conversations about flexible, mobile or collaborative working."

The study looks at balancing traditional office functions with "collaborative work", and suggests that "Getting this delicate balance wrong can significantly inhibit your ability to develop new products and services and deliver them to your clients."

This move towards collaborative working practices could see the growth in office accommodation that more and more resembles an airline business lounge - somewhere for colleagues and teams to come together for relatively short periods before dispersing to their chosen place of work? Maybe more and more office buildings will begin to resemble hotels, coffee shops?

Or even shopping centres?