Key Points:

July is one of the most stressful times of the year for working parents. Along with April, September and December/January, that is. The common theme? School holidays.

As of the start of this month, working parents and others who have caring responsibilities have been given some respite. Employees with caring responsibilities now have a specific right to ask their employers for flexible working arrangements.

The amendment to the Employment Relations Act will give parents greater flexibility in the school holidays; for some it may mean a change in hours or place of work, temporarily or permanently.

In Britain, where similar legislation has been introduced, another popular choice has been condensed hours, where people work four 10-hour days and have the fifth day off.

"It actually has the ability to be very flexible," says Emma Warden, senior associate alongside partner Jennifer Mills at law firm Minter Ellison Rudd Watts.

But not everyone is embracing this new legislation - many in industry perceive it as a threat. They say it is just another opportunity for staff to take a personal grievance case against companies.

Employers do have the right to say no, but a refusal has to be on specified "business grounds" such as an inability to reorganise work among existing staff, the burden of additional costs, or an inability to recruit extra staff.

In Britain, they are managing to say yes most of the time. A survey two years ago found 80 per cent of requests had been granted, 10 per cent were modified and 10 per cent rejected.

Still, it's early days here.

Phil O'Reilly, chief executive of Business New Zealand, says he has spoken to many company bosses who are fearful of the new flexible working legislation.

Cost is one concern; if a member of staff drops a day a week, they may have to find someone to fill in on that day off.

"However, it was always a good idea to have as flexible a workplace as possible," he says. "The companies that do this well make it part of the company culture."

But don't expect an overnight transformation.

Management first has to get over some long-entrenched ideas.

Thinking about jobs as rigidly full- or part-time is erroneous, says O'Reilly. Most jobs are made up of a group of tasks which can be sliced and diced.

One problem with the new legislation, says O'Reilly, is that it turns it into a conversation between worker and employer rather than the team and their manager. This will lead to "queuing behaviour" - the first five to ask will get what they want but the following 15 won't.

In the best workplaces, managers sit the team down to talk about their needs and those of the business.

Often the organisations who are making flexible schedules work are already "extraordinarily well-run anyway", he says.

ANZ National Bank's flexibility policy aims to accommodate a range of needs including study, commuting, child care, and elder care, says human resources manager Felicity Evans.

"All flexible working possibilities are considered and managers are encouraged to be creative when developing workable options," she says.

"We see flexibility as a win-win arrangement - helping staff members to balance their own commitments and giving us the opportunity to demonstrate that we value our people. It's also an important way to attract and retain the best talent in the market, manage workloads effectively and to further encourage diversity."

Grainne Troute, human resources manager at SkyCity Entertainment Group, says flexible hours are key to staff working around other life commitments such as family, study and sports.

"In fact, if such hours weren't available then I know of many people who would simply not be able to participate in the workforce."

Laila Harre, national secretary of the National Distribution Union, applauds the new legislation as one tool to help improve workplaces.

Harre says the main problem is that most workers know nothing about the new legislation and it is up to management to spread the word.

"We are actively promoting it. One-third of our staff are office-based; they could be working at home on occasions," she says.

Lester Levy, professor of leadership at the University of Auckland Business School, says: "In a way it's disappointing that you need a law to stimulate this. Independent of the law, the world is changing."

He warns that the trend to flexibility is not a blip which companies will be able to ignore when the unemployment rate goes up again.

According to research in countries with a large baby boomer population like New Zealand, between 50 and 75 per cent of executive management positions will be vacated by 2010.

He says flexible working is not about workers trying to assert their rights either.

"I think that's a very pessimistic, negative way of looking at it."

Levy recommends managers initiate discussion with staff.

"My suggestion is to start small, try things out and look for feedback," he says.

"This is not going away; this is to be an increasing drumbeat - embrace it."

Getting flexible

WHO'S COVERED?
Employees who have care of another person - not defined in the law, but it isn't limited to family - who have been with their current employer for six months or more, and who haven't used the new law to make a flexible work request in the past 12 months.

WHAT CAN THEY ASK FOR?
A change to their hours, days or place of work - the options are up to the worker and the employer.

WHAT MUST THE EMPLOYER DO?
Consider the request, give a decision within three months and provide an explanation if it is turned down.

GROUNDS FOR REFUSAL
Employers can turn down a request if there is a "recognised business ground" or if it clashes with a collective agreement.

Source: Department of Labour www.dol.govt.nz/worklife/flexible/guidelines.asp

Gill South is a freelance business writer based in Auckland.