Number of hybrid working tribunals rises by 50 per cent – what can HR do to avoid them?

Experts say people professionals have a crucial role to play in heading off claims as more employees are told to return to the office

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The number of employment tribunals citing remote working soared by 50 per cent last year, according to recent analysis.

Court records analysed by HR consultancy Hamilton Nash revealed there were 42 tribunals relating to remote working in 2022, compared to 27 cases in 2021.

Before the pandemic, there was an average of seven tribunals citing remote working each year; however, since 2020 that figure has more than quadrupled to an average of 33 a year, it said.

In addition, there were 25 cases in the first six months of 2023, suggesting this year will hit a new record high.

In one example, in October 2022, employee Lisanne Hedger was awarded more than £36,000 in compensation when her employer – the British Deaf Association – refused her request for reduced hours and flexible working arrangements after having a baby. She succeeded in her claims of sex discrimination and constructive unfair dismissal.

Jonothan Scollen, employment solicitor at Howarths, advised employers to “avoid broad-brush approaches” to remote working because it was often “incredibly nuanced” and usually depended on personal circumstances. “Naturally, everyone’s personal circumstances are different so trying to pigeonhole all staff into a single, rigid approach to WFH creates the perfect environment for conflict,” he added.

A growing number of organisations are keen for employees to work from the office more frequently, including HSBC and Amazon. In fact, research earlier this year found that 72 per cent of companies globally had mandated a return to the office.

Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, said HR teams have an “important role to play” when a company is considering bringing employees back to the office, in ensuring that “business leaders are fully aware of the risks in just announcing that they require everyone back to the office out of the blue”.

“Ascertaining the contractual position when it comes to the employee’s terms and conditions of employment will be a key task so that the organisation can understand what the options and risks are for them before any such announcement is made,” she added.

If remote working is in place within an organisation, Scollen warned that employers must ensure policies and procedures are implemented that clearly state “what is on offer, how it can be requested and what that process entails”.

“If it is clear who will be making the decisions and why, already the chances of a tribunal claim are reduced,” he said. “These processes are key because the best way employers can avoid tribunal claims related to remote working is to understand why someone wants or needs remote working.

“An employer can only reject a [flexible working] request for very specific statutory reasons, so a failure to properly engage with that could very likely end up with a claim.”

Jim Moore, employee relations expert at Hamilton Nash, said that while employers have been encouraging employees back to the office, the increase in tribunals “shows that it’s a growing source of workplace tension”.

“Businesses that force staff into the workplace against their will are likely to find that disputes escalate, resulting in an increasing turnover rate or costly legal remedies,” he added. “With most employees favouring a mix of office and home working, the battle for workers’ hearts and minds is going to be won by progressive employers who embrace hybrid working.”

Paul Holcroft, managing director of Croner, said: “Zoom, Meta and Amazon are some of the companies that have recently announced they expect employees to return to the office for some of the week. This hybrid model could strike a good balance for some organisations and allow employees and employers the best of both worlds.

“But there are still operational considerations for businesses with this model. Will employees be able to choose which days to come into the office or will they be told the days to come in? Employees are unlikely to agree on the same days to work from home and days to come into the workplace.”