Bridge HR articles
04 Jun Working at home post 2020
Emma Grace, Solicitor, blogs about how the Pandemic may have changed flexible working requests and needs in the future.
As an employment lawyer, flexible working is an area that I’ve been advising both employers and employees about for my entire career. It’s also something I have experienced personally, both over a decade ago after having my own children, and now, in common with most of the UK, during the pandemic. For employers, until the shutdown last March, it was a reasonably simple matter to navigate and refuse a flexible working request. Whether that will remain the case post 2020 is uncertain.
Back when I began my legal career in the early 1990s, the Disability Discrimination Act wasn’t even in force and the statutory right to request flexible working was over a decade away. Any claims for a failure to allow flexible working centred mainly on childcare and the difficulties experienced by women in balancing this with the 9 – 5 office day, relying on the Sex Discrimination Act for any cases brought. My own attempts to work flexibly following my children’s births came during this time – when technology was in its infancy, and being part-time was far more challenging.
During my career, the situation has changed considerably. But even so, for many employees, the experience of requesting flexibility to enable them to either cope with physical restrictions or caring responsibilities has been difficult, with employers often reluctant to have employees working from home, for many reasons. Employees who have had their flexible working requests refused have often resigned, unable to continue with the required hours or demands of physical commuting.
March 2020 changed things dramatically. Suddenly, with very little notice, employers were forced to either allow staff to work from home or have them not working at all. Both employers and employees had to get to grips with new technology (or new to them at least), and the world of Zoom Meetings began. Employers who had been hesitant about allowing even a single employee to work from home suddenly had to set up most or all of their employees to do just that, full time, for an indefinite length of time if their businesses were to survive.
Arguably, the Pandemic has been a game-changer for flexible working in the UK. Employers are now realising that, in fact, working flexibly from home can be successful for many roles. There is mounting evidence that many organisations will never go back to the old full time office work, varying from moving to an entirely flexible work force to having a hybrid part office/part home workforce. There have been many stories of big companies closing expensive City Centre premises, and changing terms and conditions going forward permanently.
There are, of course, many organisations who have not felt that the work-from-home model worked well for their business, and they are gearing up for the majority of their workforce to return to office-based working life, having found that the disjointed approach of a workforce spread out in disparate locations an unsuccessful one.
For both employers and employees, it’s important to consider carefully what lessons were learned during the shutdown, what advantages may have been found during the enforced homeworking, and what disadvantages were encountered. It would be too simplistic to say that the pendulum has swung entirely in favour of the work-from-home model, and that all employees will be able to work flexibly whenever they like going forwards.
In terms of the advantages, employers who are comfortable adopting a home based or hybrid working system will no longer be forced to recruit only people who can commute to the office every day and will instead be able to draw from a wider talent pool outside of the immediate geographical area. Offering at least some degree of flexible working, for those who want it, is likely to boost morale and be an important recruitment and retention tool. Employers who do not offer any home working to staff may lose out to their competitors that do. Also, if there are fewer employees coming into the office every day less office space will be required and other overheads will be reduced.
Whilst there are many advantages, there are also disadvantages. The experience of working from home has not been a good one for everyone, and for some businesses it will have had a detrimental effect. One of the biggest areas of concern centres around the junior employees and the lack of the experience gained simply by being in the same room as more experienced staff. Employers will need to be careful to ensure that the training provided in this way is not lost, should they move away from shared premises. Employers may also feel that they do not wish to lose their organisation's ethos and culture, which is often engendered by having people regularly together in one space. Ideas are perhaps more readily exchanged when everyone is working together, and for some staff the social contact working in an office environment provides is invaluable.
Arguably, the employers who are making this work most effectively are those able to offer a flexible approach, allowing staff who want to work in the office full time (or for most of the time) to do so whilst allowing others to work from home more often. Senior staff with management responsibility should also spend some time in the office in order to train and mentor more junior staff when required, and employers will be able to insist on this as being essential to their business needs. A model where only the junior staff are based in the office is unlikely to meet business needs, and employers must remember that it is up them to ensure those are met and not to employees to demand flexibility whenever it suits them.
A more flexible approach to working is now probably here to stay, with employers less able to refuse to consider requests and perhaps employees more willing to make them. Employer should seriously consider taking charge of the process, rather than waiting to be forced into it by staff taking legal action against them. There is an opportunity for employers to create a new flexibility on their own terms.