Remote working has moved on hugely over the last decade, giving us the tools that allow many to work remotely, process facts, hold meetings, speak and write.  During the shutdown work communications have done some rapid catching up with the types of communication people were already using on social media.  New ways of working have emerged and become the new normal and arguably a lot of time has been saved.

When return to work is allowed, the experience of shutdown home working may mean that many more jobs will be considered suitable for home working and many more employees will want to do that, for at least part of the working week.

Home working fits with the carbon friendly less travel objectives.  It is saves time and money.  It is particularly useful to parents and other carers.  It fits with the desire for flexibility increasingly sought by younger staff.  Employers who offer flexibility know it assists staff retention.  Anything attractive to staff that does not cost the employer money has to be a good thing, provided it works for the business.  If it saves the business money, by reducing the costs of time and space, even better.   If it assist with productivity levels, a key Government objective, that will be better still.

So on return to work we can expect a boom in flexible working discussions.  Most flexible working proposals can be worked out informally between managers and staff.  Both sides know it needs to work for the business.  If informal talks fail then the law already gives most staff the right to make a formal request for flexible working.  ‘Flexible’ means changed hours, place of work or whatever, put in place by an agreed change in the contract of employment.  It can be an agreed change to arrangements that are flexible themselves, e.g. 30 hours worked as and when and where required by the work to do.  It is key to note that the right at present is only to make a request, not a demand, and an employer can turn the change down provided there are good business reasons.

Germany is set to take things further this autumn, tabling legislation to give most employees a legal right to work from home.  Governments, including ours, may want as many as possible to work from home in future, to help cushion the effect on the economy of challenges like Covid 19.  Finland is the only other country with the right in place so far, and it works well there.  The German Employment Minister says that, ‘Everyone who wants to and whose job allows it should be able to work in a home office.  We are learning in the pandemic how much work can be done from home.’  Perhaps the key words there are ‘whose job allows it.’   Who’s to judge that then?  Just as with UK flexible working requests, working at home during the shutdown will have made it much harder in many cases for an employer to argue that the job does not allow it.

So, on return to work watch out for employee requests to work more flexibly than before shutdown.  It may be that the employer wants to propose more flexibility.  If change can’t be informally agreed, if it is the employee who wants the change, bear in mind the flexible working procedures with us since 2014: see here details.

Always do what is right for your business or organisation, but at the same time remember the flexible working regime has teeth and it is an area in which there are often discrimination hazards too.

This can be general food for thought only.  Before acting, take practical, commercial advice from our Employment Team to ensure you lower the risks as much as you can.