Lesley Murphy: There’s no place like home for working

Colombia fans kiss a replica world cup trophy. Picture: PA
Colombia fans kiss a replica world cup trophy. Picture: PA
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Avoid the commute. Keep a cheeky eye on the World Cup matches. Spend the day in your trackies. What is not to love about homeworking?

With the World Cup in Russia up and running, there will undoubtedly be a few employees pursuing ‘flexible working’ over the next few weeks, whether legitimately or not. However, football aside, remote working is a hot topic for employers.

Lesley Murphy is a Partner, Harper Macleod LLP

Lesley Murphy is a Partner, Harper Macleod LLP

Increasingly as a nation it is something that we do, at least from time-to-time: over 4.3 million of us in the UK during last year’s first quarter, according to the Office of National Statistics. The trend looks set to continue and many benefits are obvious: reduced overheads and office space, reduced travel time, and a degree of improved flexibility for employees in dealing with their non-work commitments.

Scotland lags a little behind the UK national average for remote working at 4.5 per cent compared with 5.7 per cent nationally. Should we be embracing it more wholeheartedly north of the Border, or are there risks and pitfalls?

Homeworking can be agreed informally on an individual basis between an employer and employee for particular days (“any chance I can work from home to watch the football boss?”). Alternatively, employees who have 26 weeks’ service might request homeworking, using a formal flexible working request under relevant legislation. Here, the employee asks to permanently change their terms and conditions of employment, and this may include a request to work from home permanently or on particular days. The request must be in writing and should be considered by the employer, who must deal with it “in a reasonable manner”. There should be a right of appeal and the final appeal decision must be within three months.

There are prescribed business grounds on which an employer may refuse such an application, and generally as long as procedures are followed and one of the prescribed reasons for refusal is given, the legal risk under the Flexible Working legislation is relatively low. However, where an employee is making the request to accommodate child care commitments, there is the risk that a refusal might be indirectly discriminatory on the grounds of sex.

Flexibility is often cited as a key advantage of remote working. Google ‘homeworking’ and your search will return an array of images of multi-tasking women (and one or two men) working on laptops while babies or toddlers bounce on their laps. Though every job is different, it can be tempting to overestimate the compatibility of childcare with productive work. ACAS recommends that employers should make it clear that dependents need to be looked after by someone other than the employee during working time.

That, said, working from home might help parents significantly with accommodating the school run and other commitment. Some job roles may permit working time to be arranged around these responsibilities and, in these cases, homeworking could have significant practical benefits. Where this is the case, firms which refuse requests may need to be in a position to show their insistence on traditional ‘onsite working’ is underpinned by a legitimate aim and that their approach is proportionate. Otherwise they risk discrimination complaints.

In considering any request from a working parent or otherwise, there are many factors to weigh up in choosing a home working model, from job suitability to employee engagement and quality control. Not to mention matters such as insurance, data protection and confidentiality, health and safety, and the allocation of Wi-Fi and heating costs.

There may be scope, though, for the homeworking revolution to promote a more inclusive labour market in other respects. With around 160,000 people with disabilities working from home, the TUC point out that remote working is an important opportunity for disabled people to access work.

A big blockage can be the perception that staff cannot be trusted to work as hard when out of the boss’s line of vision. But according to a Canada Life survey, home workers rate their productivity higher than office-based counterparts at 7.7/10 compared with 6.5/10. Unsurprisingly, it also found homeworkers reported reduced sickness absence.

Lesley Murphy is a partner, Harper Macleod LLP