New normal or not, hybrid working is still a privilege rather than a right - Liam Entwistle

More than two years have passed since all non-essential workers were asked to stay at home to stop the spread of Covid-19.

Liam Entwistle is an employment law specialist at Wright, Johnston & Mackenzie LLP
Liam Entwistle is an employment law specialist at Wright, Johnston & Mackenzie LLP

Humans are good at adapting. Many workers became so used to this new normal that the idea of returning to the workplace wasn’t a welcome one – and this continues to cause debate.

Plenty of politicians, tycoons and entrepreneurs have made their feelings abundantly clear on those who continue to work from home. Some of the world’s best-known employers have recognised the beneficial aspects and permanently adopted a flexible working model, allowing staff to continue working from home as little or often as they please.

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It is important to remember that as far as employment rights are concerned, home-working and hybrid working models are still technically a privilege rather than a right. Any home working patterns that have not been changed into an actual policy are unlikely to have become contractual by default.

An employer is perfectly within their rights to ask employees to return to the office on a full-time basis if their contract states this is their permanent place of work, especially if they are genuinely struggling to function effectively under the current flexible working model.

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The “deal” between an employer and employee rests on two things – the legal contract and the relationship – the latter is a much more complex web of trust, fear, loyalty and the organisation’s ideology, amongst other things. Being away from a collegiate atmosphere can weaken the emotional link between an employer and employee which can make it incredibly difficult to motivate employees. As a result, productivity and loyalty can suffer.

If an employer imposes more controlling restrictions on employees – which they are perfectly within their rights to do – it could make staff unhappy and ultimately create an unmotivated and resentful workforce.

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The cost-of-living crisis means it’s more vital than ever that employers find a way of keeping employees happy. If flexible working is important to an employee they will look for that elsewhere.

It’s important for employers to be open and transparent, and ensure their employees understand the issues and are engaged and notified of any proposed changes to working patterns well in advance, to allow them time to plan for any necessary adjustments.

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Finding the balance between flexibility and keeping a coherent team spirit alive requires input and ideas from both sides of the relationship.

Efforts should be made to ensure any current arrangements are formalised, with set times for review and change, if necessary.

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Employees who are still worried about Covid should not have their worries discarded out of hand. There may be underlying health reasons – including mental health – beneath their concerns, so it’s important to discuss these rather than being dismissive.

Reasonable adjustments may need to be made. As always, open communication is the key to avoiding conflict in the workplace.

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Liam Entwistle is an employment law specialist at Wright, Johnston & Mackenzie LLP. For more information on how WJM’s team of solicitors can help, go to www.wjm.co.uk.

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