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The Changing Landscape of Working Patterns: Flexible Working

For many people, the way they work may never be quite the same again.

In some businesses, the flexibility to work from home tended to apply only to certain roles, or sometimes only to more senior employees. But 2020 has seen a tectonic shift in working patterns for the UK workforce. Many businesses have required their entire workforces to work from home, with some needing to furlough staff, and others requiring some staff to move to part-time working.

It is entirely likely that these changes, imposed upon employers in very short order by the extraordinary circumstances, will have long-lasting effects and result in behavioural changes. Going forward, we are likely to see greater numbers of staff (often in roles which were previously considered to be ‘impossible’ to perform from home) wanting to work remotely – if not full time, then part of the time. We may also see greater numbers of staff moving to part-time work, and some businesses may even choose to stay with a fully or partially remote workforce.

Employers should be planning for this and reviewing and updating their policies to ensure that they can adequately meet developing needs and changes in behaviour. Not only will this help with the practicalities of day to day business and procedures, but it will also assist in reducing risk for businesses.

Businesses should be considering their policy and practices in relation to remote working, and perhaps asking themselves whether previous justifications for refusing homeworking need revising. Employees may well be able to counter objections with the evidence that they have worked remotely successfully during lockdown, so employers will need to consider carefully whether there are genuine reasons for requiring workers to attend the physical workplace, such as difficulties with remote supervision and learning as well as considering the physical and mental wellbeing of their staff.

Thought also needs to be given to what support an employer might be prepared to offer its employees to facilitate mobile working and how that might work financially – is it viable to provide all staff with certain equipment such as mobile phones or laptops? Do your policies deal sufficiently with the practicalities?

Some things we would recommend:

• Implement a clear and comprehensive set of policies governing flexible working and home working. This should include data-security and confidentiality practices, clear expectations on devices and equipment and protocols on breach. If you already have such policies in place, revisit them, refresh them and ensure they remain suitable;

• Consider your business travel policy. Employees may not be comfortable travelling unless it is absolutely necessary for them to do so. Meetings which previously took place in person may now need to happen remotely;

• Revisit health and safety policies and ensure that they take account of people working from home (and, in the short to medium term, how your business is dealing or will deal with a return to the physical workplace, bearing in mind the government guidelines around social distancing and PPE);

• Think about amending other policies to account for the increase in working from home/flexible working – for example, it might be worth inserting into grievance and disciplinary policies that interviews and/or hearings can be conducted remotely

• Consider what lessons can be learnt from lockdown in terms of business continuity. Do you need to put further measures in place in case of a second lockdown (whether local or national)?

• Consider investing in additional technology and resources for digital collaboration (and provide staff with adequate training on existing and new technology). Having the right tools in place is crucial to ensuring the success of virtual working;

• Focus on developing a positive culture around home-working. The likely reality is that remote working is going to be part of the ‘new normal’ and a culture of trust and respect around this less traditional way of working will be important to its success;

• Set up regular virtual check-ins with staff who are working remotely to ensure they are not feeling isolated or lacking support;

• Consider how performance management and assessment processes and policies need to be amended to account for remote workers. Feedback can be less easy to ask for and give virtually (when popping over to a desk or into a meeting room isn’t possible), but it remains as important as ever.

If you have any queries in relation to flexible working, do get in touch with Beth Hale (Partner), who specialises in  employment law issues for multi-national employers, senior executives, firms and partners.