There is no return to the 'old normal' working pattern - Gillian Moore

For many employers and employees, the pandemic has provided the opportunity for an immersive trial run of home working. As we tentatively look towards a working life after Covid, many employers are conducting staff surveys and consultations to gather feedback on future working arrangements.

Gillian Moore is an Associate, Shepherd and Wedderburn

Results suggest employees are keen to hang on to the benefits of homeworking, whether greater flexibility in working hours or avoiding the commute, and will look to secure permanent homeworking or hybrid working arrangements. Employers have seen benefits too, and many will now be considering the practical implications of a shift to greater homeworking post-Covid.

Dealing with Flexible Working Requests

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Anyone employed for at least 26 weeks has the legal right to request flexible working. This often involves requesting a change to working hours, but also covers requests to work from home. Many employers expect a flood of flexible working requests as soon as any requirement to work from home imposed by the government or employer is lifted.

Many employers expect a flood of flexible working requests as soon as any requirement to work from home imposed by the government or employer is lifted. Picture: SWNS

One challenge for employers handling flexible working requests pre-Covid was competing requests. This could be resolved by a strict ‘first come first served’ approach or consulting with all affected employees to reach an agreement that accommodates everyone. This is not always easy, particularly in smaller teams. The statutory flexible working regime recognises valid business reasons why flexible working arrangements cannot always be accommodated, and employers can lawfully refuse a request, if they rely on one or more of eight business reasons prescribed in law.

Employers cannot sidestep the statutory flexible working regime if an employee wishes to make a formal request, but could get ahead of the anticipated deluge of requests by taking a proactive approach. This may include communicating with employees about plans for future remote working, and developing a homeworking strategy and internal policy to ensure requests are accommodated fairly and consistently.

Health and Safety

Employers have been wrestling with their obligations in relation to employees’ physical and mental health while working from home. The fact that homeworking arose as an emergency response to a global crisis has, to some extent, lowered expectations of what is required of an employer. However, employers need to consider permanent homeworking arrangements more carefully.

Even if employees choose to work from home, their employer retains responsibility for their health and safety. As a minimum, employers should carry out risk assessments to review the suitability of the workstation and equipment used. Most employers have been alive to the risk of stress, isolation and the impact on mental health during the pandemic and periods of lockdown exacerbated by forced homeworking. Obligations to mitigate these risks and provide appropriate support remain where arrangements are permanent and implemented at the request of employees. Almost a year of consistent homeworking has brought additional challenges in managing employees’ physical well-being. Employer-provided yoga classes and “at your desk” exercises are becoming popular. If homeworking is to continue in some form long-term, then the need for employers to take reasonable steps to ensure employees can safely work from home becomes increasingly important.

Employee relations

A key practical consideration for employers considering a move to an entirely remote or hybrid working arrangement will be how to maintain positive interactions within employee teams. This will be particularly challenging where there is a mix of office and homeworking. In the long term, employers should take particular care to ensure homeworking arrangements do not compound equality issues. While Covid has forced even the most sceptical to try homeworking, it is likely to remain an option of particular benefit to employees with caring responsibilities or who require reasonable adjustments due to a physical or mental disability. If office presenteeism is rewarded directly or indirectly (whether deliberately or unconsciously) through work allocation, promotions or bonus awards, to the detriment of home workers, this could give rise to valid discrimination complaints and a more general sense of detachment from the workplace.

Commentators say the pandemic has pushed many businesses forward to a position it would otherwise have taken 10 years or more to achieve, in terms of acceptance of home working and willingness to embrace flexibility. While some degree of rollback is inevitable, it is unlikely we will see many businesses that have shown themselves capable of facilitating remote working for almost a year now return entirely to the ‘old normal’.

Gillian Moore is an Associate, Shepherd and Wedderburn

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