With the coronavirus pandemic and consequential lockdown forcing many to work from home, the question arises as to whether working from home will become the new normal. Although lockdown measures have started to relax, many employers are seeing their staff either wanting to continue working from home, if possible, or refusing to come back to the office.
All employees with at least 26 weeks’ continuous service have been entitled to ask to work from home since June 2014, although many have been reluctant to invoke this. Before Covid-19, approximately 5 per cent of UK employees worked from home. This number is expected to rise substantially with the news of some businesses deciding to give up their office space altogether and introduce flexible working as standard practice.
Many employers would like their staff to return to the office rather than continue to work remotely. Employers should make sure they have practices and procedures in place to ensure the health and safety of their employees before asking them to return.
Employees who would like to continue working at home on a permanent basis should be encouraged to make a flexible working request. Employers should consider requests in a reasonable manner and only refuse them if there is a good business reason for doing so based on one of eight prescribed grounds. Good business reasons can include the burden of additional costs, a detrimental effect on the ability to meet customer demand and a detrimental impact on performance.
Businesses should ensure they take extra care when handling flexible working requests post-lockdown. The coronavirus pandemic has proven that employees are able to meet customer demand and perform while working remotely, and declining a request based on a sound business reason will need to be sufficiently robust given that it is likely to be subject to more employee scrutiny than was the case before lockdown.
Concerns for HR
Although flexible working has become popular over the past few months with people realising they can work efficiently remotely without the need for a commute, flexible working is, and will be, an increased burden for HR. Employers will still owe the same duties of care for their staff whether they are working in the office or at home, and will therefore potentially have to satisfy these duties remotely.
The main issue for HR will be conducting work to maintain the obligations that the employer owes to its employees in regard to their health and safety. This will include HR having to undertake remote health and safety risk assessments, as well as putting procedures in place that ensure employees have the right equipment to work safely and are taking care of their mental health. They will also have to make sure any reasonable adjustments are made for those who have a disability. The best way for HR departments to fulfil these responsibilities is to ensure they are keeping in regular contact with employees, and that they are cultivating an open space during these conversations for the employee to raise any concerns.
In addition to fulfilling their usual responsibilities, HR departments will have additional duties to undertake for those working from home. For example, confirmation will be required that employees are able to work from home pursuant to their mortgage or lease arrangements. Additionally, HR departments will need to check the details of employees’ insurance policies if they are providing that employee with business equipment to ensure they are adequately covered. Employees may also incur additional expenses that they may seek from the employer relating to home working, such as additional telephone and/or broadband costs, and HR departments should make sure they have a policy in place to deal with this.
On a more general note, employers should also be thinking about creating a culture that is inclusive to those working remotely, including diversifying their work systems and ensuring remote employees are supported sufficiently, both mentally and by the employers’ pre-existing systems (eg IT systems).
It is likely that working from home (at least in part) will become the new normal in the short term while the world recovers from the coronavirus pandemic. Whether it will be a long-lasting change will only be determined through time.
Chris Cook is a partner and head of employment and data protection at SA Law