Following the recommendations of the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices (Good Work Plan) the government ran a consultation in 2019 on proposals to support working families. One such proposal was about encouraging employers to be more transparent about their approach to flexible working.
A recent study by Timewise found that nine in 10 people in the UK wanted to work flexibly. While there are many different forms of flexible working such as part-time working, flexitime, remote working, job shares and annualised or compressed hours, they are all ways of moving away from the traditional office nine-five. The reasons for wanting to work flexibly are equally varied, but common responses include a desire to reduce commuting time, managing childcare responsibilities, and achieving a better work-life balance by spending more time with friends and family.
The Good Work Plan noted that despite advances in technology enabling flexible working, there was a view that traditional workplace culture – being ‘seen at your desk’ - and a perceived lack of trust from management were creating obstacles to flexible working. Many of these obstacles have had to be quickly overcome in the last few months.
Employees with 26 weeks’ service have the right to request flexible working but, despite this right, too few jobs are advertised as being available to people who may wish to work flexibly. A 2019 survey of working families found that despite 86 per cent of respondents saying they would like to work flexibly, just over half actually did.
Employers that are open about flexible working arrangements and family-friendly policies from the start will undoubtedly be seen as more attractive than those that are not. Employers that do not promote flexible working opportunities may not only struggle to recruit new talent but motivate and retain their existing workforce too.
Remote working during Covid-19
Remote working is a flexible working arrangement that has been thrust on many businesses overnight in response to the spread of Covid-19 in the UK. The government has advised that where possible, employees should work from home for the foreseeable future. While many employers will already have remote working policies in place, this will be a foreign concept to others. Regardless of where the organisation stood on remote working before the coronavirus outbreak, many employers will now need to quickly address the practicalities of every staff member working from home.
Nuffield Health recently launched a whitepaper examining the impact of remote working on employees and employers. While there were positives to report – remote working can provide employees with flexibility to juggle work and home life demands – studies show that spending more than half the week out of the office could have detrimental effects on the workplace culture. In the present circumstances, employers need to be aware of the potential pitfalls and how to alleviate these.
Recommendations for employers
- Put a remote working policy in place, or refresh your existing policy, being mindful that one size won’t fit all. Consider those who have childcare responsibilities.
- Ensure that employees have the right technology to enable them to work remotely and know where to find support. It may be necessary to ask employees to use their own equipment, which is likely to be considered a reasonable request given the exceptional circumstances.
- Conduct health and safety assessments to ensure employees have a suitable space at home to work from – the obligation to protect employees’ welfare, health and safety ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’ still applies. Given the numbers of employees likely to be working from home, consideration will need to be given to the best method of safely assessing the employee’s home working environment.
- Consider data protection implications for home working, especially if employees are handling sensitive materials, and speak to your data protection officer for advice.
- Encourage meetings by phone or video conferencing technology, and use of instant messaging to replace ‘water cooler’ conversations and keep morale up. Be alive to employee concerns of isolation or stress and signpost mental health support where available.
The future of flexible working
In response to the consultation, the government has already pledged to implement changes – such as the introduction of leave and statutory pay for parents of babies in neonatal care – through the forthcoming Employment Bill. Responses are expected in due course regarding parental leave and pay, and also on the transparency of flexible working and related policies, though given the circumstances we anticipate a delay of both the bill and any further responses on these issues.
What is clear is that the unprecedented circumstances surrounding Covid-19 has the potential to permanently shift employee working culture. While remote working is currently a necessity for many organisations, in the longer term, employees may question if there is a need to work from the office at all. While this may inevitably present challenges, some employers may see this as an opportunity to embrace and promote greater flexibility. It’s possible that the current circumstances are driving a paradigm shift that will change the way we work forever.
Rob Tubman is a solicitor at TLT LLP