Flexible working – can it work for your business?

In 2020, as a result of the pandemic, the Government required employees to work from home ‘where possible’ resulting in the majority of the UK’s workforce becoming homeworkers.

Employers had their hands full adapting to this new normal which involved facilitating home working for their employees including ensuring that employees had access to the appropriate IT equipment and the resources they needed to be able to work effectively. Employees too found the new normal challenging initially as many had to juggle home schooling and childcare with work responsibilities. But more than a year later, both employers and employees have become far more proficient and comfortable with remote working.

Surveys reflect that many employees prefer home working and research has negated employer’s fears that teams wouldn’t be as productive. In many cases the opposite was true, with employees being more engaged and working efficiently with less distractions. However, now with the vaccine rollout in full swing and lockdown restrictions easing, many employers are hoping to return to what was once normal – a daily 9 to 5 at the office. Not all employees are as enthusiastic to get back into the office though. Many feel that the past year has proven that remote work is possible and beneficial. So, what is the best course of action? Can companies mandate a return to the office? Can employees refuse and if they do what are the consequences?

In a recent HR Huddle webinar, we chatted to employment lawyer Keely Baigent of ksabLAW about how to approach flexible working requests. You may be surprised to discover that there are in fact very clear legal guidelines on handling flexible working requests. Here are some of the key takeaways for employers:

Get to know the legal parameters for flexible working applications.

There is what’s known as the Acas Code and the Acas Guide which deals specifically with flexible working requests. In terms of the law, details can be found in the Statutory Scheme set out in S80F to 80I of the Employment Right’s Act 1996. Employers need to be familiar with these documents because they lay out very clearly when and how employees can request flexible working conditions and on what grounds employers can legally approve or reject the applications.

Keep open lines of communication with employees

Many employees feel that they have benefitted from flexible working conditions and want this to continue. They may have a valid legal reason on which to rely in requesting a continuation of them working from home or they may simply feel it’s more convenient by saving them commuting time and associated expense. It should be remembered that in general employees are more productive when they feel that their interests are being taken into consideration so keeping open lines of communication and taking the time to understand their situation and concerns about returning to work is vital.

Be aware of possible discriminatory factors

When requesting a return to the office employers should be mindful of cases that could result in discrimination. Some employees may have valid medical reasons for not wanting to return to the office. Some may have issues with childcare or children not being able to return to school. Employers should seek to understand the situation before taking a hard line – even if they are legally entitled to do so. There are many discriminatory factors and resolving these cases can be costly. Not only in terms of time and money spent on the legal elements but also because it can adversely affect the reputation of the company.

Consider the bigger picture

It may be true that working from home was forced upon companies as a result of the pandemic which was an unforeseen event. The situation has been stressful with many people struggling with anxiety on top of having to balance work and home life in the same space. Many employees are only now starting to feel comfortable again and introducing an ultimatum to return to the office could escalate stress levels again. In impossible situations people find a way to make things work. When considering flexible working applications, it’s best to keep an open mind and consider the bigger picture. Do you want engaged productive employees? Then a compromise outcome rather than an outright of refusal of a flexible working request may be the appropriate approach. The best outcomes will be achieved when everyone is open to new ideas and finds a way to work that is mutually beneficial.

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