Experts advise ‘understanding’ as third of employers see increase in staff working from home amid rising cost of living

Poor management of changes to flexi-work policies could result in disputes or even tribunals, commentators warn

Dimitri Vervitsiotis, VICTOR/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

More than a third (36 per cent) of employers have seen an increase in staff working from home across 2023 as the cost of living crisis has taken hold, according to new research.

The Acas survey, which was undertaken by YouGov and polled 1,015 senior business decision makers earlier this year, found that, compared to 2022, 36 per cent of businesses have seen an increase in employees working from home.

Acas chief executive Susan Clews said: "For some workers, the cost of commuting is eating into their budgets, while, for others, going to their workplaces saves on home energy costs.”

She suggested employers "work with staff to agree suitable ways of working for specific roles, taking account of individual circumstances and regularly review arrangements".

Without these measures, experts warn of contractual issues and resulting friction between employees and employers. 

For Angela Brumpton, employment partner at gunnercooke, employees first need to ensure that their contract allows additional working from home before changing other aspects of their life to suit this. “The employment contract will usually specify the place of work… and the employer can require staff to work at the office on a full-time basis, even if they have previously allowed some home working,” she said.

Amanda Trewhella, employment law director at Freeths, added: “An employee’s place of work is dictated by their employment contract as agreed with their employer,” but said many pandemic-sparked informal arrangements about work from home complicate the picture.

As such, she warned employers that additional working from home might be considered “OK” and part of an employee’s contract. Any changes to this should be agreed upon with the employee, Trewhella added. “Ideally these arrangements would have been confirmed in writing or in a policy, making the position clear as to whether this was to be a permanent arrangement or a temporary one that could be changed at the employer’s discretion,” she said.

Indeed, Brumpton warned that if an employer required an employee in the office more than they were willing to be then it could create tribunal issues. “Poor handling of an instruction to return to the office, such as failing to give reasonable notice of a change, could breach the implied duty of trust and confidence, allowing the employee to resign and claim constructive unfair dismissal,” she said.

As such, Claire McCartney, senior inclusion adviser at the CIPD, suggested creating a policy around working from home. “It’s important that organisations have clear and fair policies around flexible working and are considering both business and employee needs… as with the cost of living crisis continuing to squeeze household finances it’s not surprising that this is impacting on flexible working preferences,” she said.

As People Management reported, two thirds (68 per cent) of workers feel that their employer does not help them with their finances, nor do they feel comfortable discussing their finances at work. Trewhella noted that being understanding about working preferences could be a great place to make inroads on this subject. “For some staff, there may be reasons that coming into the workplace is difficult for them, which could include the costs of commuting, issues with childcare or health issues, and any concerns should be discussed with them to see whether their needs can be accommodated.”

In addition, Alan Price, CEO of BrightHR, said the best working from home approaches balanced the needs of the individual and the business. “If an employer wants to encourage employees into the office, then looking at how they can assist with commuting costs is likely to be key,” he said.

“Could they offer discounted travel passes or cycle-to-work schemes, or could hybrid working be the middle ground so that employees spend some of the time at home and the rest in the office? Given the divisive nature, such discussions will need to be handled sensitively and through meaningful consultation with employees.”