During 2020, the world witnessed a historic shift in the way most desk-based, office located work has been done. The swift, unforeseen arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic meant that businesses had to respond rapidly, and organisations which, hitherto, had been largely office-based had to adjust quickly to remote, home-based working and now many employees are working from home.
Though it might have been a struggle to begin with, for many, the changes in working practices and environment were navigated successfully. So, as restrictions are eased – at varying degrees by the different regions of the UK – employers and employees will be contemplating the future of their office spaces, and what the best and most desirable course of action might be regarding continued homeworking.
Some large local, national and international organisations have already told employees that they will continue to work from home full-time, indefinitely. Some have gone as far as putting their premises up for sale or rent. While others may want their employees to return to the exact position they were in pre-pandemic. The views of employees will, undoubtedly, cover a wide spectrum of opinion on the subject and might lead to disagreement between employers and employees coming from either direction.
The speed at which organisations were required to act in the initial days and weeks understandably made it difficult for many businesses to investigate their full responsibilities towards their home located staff, let alone make amendments to contracts and health and safety procedures to include these changes. However, enough time has now elapsed for any organisations which have not already considered these matters seriously to begin to do so.
When formulating plans for either continuing homeworking or returning to an office, organisations should first identify any contractual rights and/or obligations by employees to attend a particular workplace. Temporary changes may (or may not) have been agreed at some point during the pandemic to cover lockdown periods; however, these may have been hastily put in place with a simple exchange of emails, rather than considered contractual changes.
A change to permanent homeworking
Many organisations have put considerable time, effort and money into ensuring their staff are properly equipped to work from home, and understandably wish to make the most of their investment. Many have also seen considerable savings in terms of heating, lighting, rent and other business costs with staff home located, so are reluctant to return to the way things were pre-Covid.
If an employer wishes to extend homeworking indefinitely for all employees, contracts should be revised accordingly. However, a considered approach, sensitive to employees needs and concerns, should be applied wherever possible to avoid potential conflict.
Existing contractual clauses which include a unilateral right on the part of the employer to vary the place of work may well entitle them to implement continued homeworking; though consultation with staff is advised to avoid employees feeling that the decision has been made in an oppressive manner.
Trial periods and a more gradual change to a hybrid working pattern – including a mix of home and office-based work – may go some way to avoid any potential disputes that could eventually lead to tribunal.
Employers’ responsibilities towards their staff, the business, and its clients or customers, will remain the same regardless of where employees work from. Therefore, policies and practices on health and safety, data protection and confidentiality – including cyber security – should be considered and amended where needed. Expenses policies may also need to be revised to reflect the fact that office supplies are being bought by workers themselves. Employer contributions to heating, lighting, broadband and telephone costs should also be considered.
The employer also has the same duty of care for staff during the time work is being undertaken, so it is vital that they are provided with the right equipment, technology, furniture and support to complete their work in a safe and comfortable manner.
There is also the matter of efficient management of staff working remotely. Some employees might suffer from a feeling of isolation from work colleagues and neglect by their managers when working from home full-time. This could lead them to struggle with their workload, underperform, and potentially suffer from work-related mental health issues. Best practice policies and a determined effort to devise a new kind of work culture are also advised to avoid such issues.
A return to the office
What if the decision has been made to return all staff to the office and some are unhappy about it? Can employers force staff to come back into the office?
Any employee with at least 26-weeks continuous service has the right to request flexible working. By law, employers must consider and respond to a flexible working request, and though there are certain circumstances in which such a request could be refused, these are limited to specific business reasons.
Any flexible working request, or a request for continuation of homeworking, must be looked at in the context of the organisation’s recent experience of extended homeworking, as well as that of the wider workforce.
Due to the events of 2020/2021, it may well be more difficult for employers to defend tribunal claims arising from refusals of such requests. Especially as, in many cases, it has been proven that with the right systems in place, homeworking is not just viable but indeed very successful and productive.
As a result, it is likely that working from home is something that will remain despite the lifting of other Covid related restrictions.
According to a survey from Enterprise Technology Research (ETR), the percentage of workers permanently working from home is expected to double in 2021.
ETR surveyed 1,200 chief information officers from around the world across different industries. Of those interviewed for the survey, 48.6% reported that productivity has improved since workers began working remotely, with only 28.7% of respondents indicating a decline in productivity and the remainder reporting no noticeable change.
As the UK appears to be emerging from lockdown and trying to live in a manner more reminiscent of pre-pandemic days, homeworking looks set to be one thing that will remain. As such, employers and employees will have to deal with a world in which homeworking is far more prevalent. This means that if organisations haven’t already begun to do so they must think more carefully about the implications of homeworking and any policy changes that need to be put in place to cover this practice.
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