Unsurprisingly, the number of people working from home more than doubled in 2020, according to the Office for National Statistics. During that time, many companies saved money on office space, utility bills and parking permits and, contrary to what they expected, found that their workforce was just as productive at home as they were in the office.
On the other hand, while some employees have struggled with feelings of isolation, others have relished the chance to work from home, cutting out the daily commute and increasing the amount of time they get to spend with family and friends.
Most organisations are now trying to make longer-term working plans and are finding that employees are keen to have some degree of flexibility in their working week, now that they’ve experienced it.
Deloitte recently announced that it has given its 10,000 UK employees the choice of when they work from the office, while global job site Indeed revealed searches for remote work have increased by 500 per cent since February 2020. There’s clearly an appetite for more flexible work options and employers should be encouraging open conversations and consultations with staff before firming up plans.
Finding a middle ground
For many businesses, it’s a case of finding a middle ground – an approach that works for everyone, rather than implementing wholescale extreme changes. Be mindful that suddenly asking all employees to come back to the office full time now that lockdown has been lifted may not go down well. For a start, many may be feeling anxious about a return after 18 months at home. Be open to alternative approaches and suggestions. Trial periods can be an excellent way to see if a new way of working is right for your business before you commit to a long-term change.
It’s important to understand that just because you allow one employee to work from home, that doesn’t automatically mean that you have to allow another employee to do the same, even if they have a similar set of circumstances and a similar request. Business circumstances may have changed – new clients and contracts, for example, and this can be a key factor in a decision.
In your company handbook, set out the reasons why a request may be turned down, so it doesn’t come as a surprise. If a request is made and you do refuse, you must always give your reason in writing. It’s important that you make decisions fairly and the basis of a rejection or acceptance should be consistent across all requests.
Employment policies and contracts
If you have agreed to a remote working request or are moving to a fully remote or hybrid workforce, it’s likely that your HR policies and employment contracts will need to be adapted to reflect the changes to working patterns. As a minimum, you should have a homeworking policy outlining working hours and how remote working employees will be monitored and assessed.
Coming out of lockdown, it’s highly likely that many employees will want some degree of flexibility or hybrid working. Listen to employee concerns and consult with them before introducing new working patterns. Be prepared for work from home requests and consider these on an individual basis, making your decision based on business need rather than a desire to return to pre-lockdown normality.
Katie Hodson is head of employment at SAS Daniels LLP