After what has felt like a long 12 months involving various forms of restriction, the advent of the vaccination programme has brought hope that lockdown measures can be lifted permanently, promising a return to what we consider to be ‘normal life’. This period is likely to present new challenges to businesses and pose questions about how they will adapt to changes in working preferences.
One challenge that will impact everybody in some way is the ongoing economic impact of the pandemic. When delivering the annual budget last week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced an extension of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme through to September, the freezing of tax-free allowances and higher rate tax threshold. As a result, this provides food for thought about the short- and medium-term future of businesses.
The shift to remote working
For many employers, the change to remote working has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of the pandemic. The use of technological solutions, flexible working arrangements, and increases to workforce adaptability have given business leaders pause when thinking about what happens next. Some have downsized or closed their office spaces already, making significant cost savings on rent, as well as heating, lighting, and other overheads.
For employees, this experience has given them a taste of what a new work-life balance may look like. In most cases, this involves a significant reduction in business travel and commutes, freeing up more time to spend with family and enjoy leisure activities.
The challenges of remote management
Home working and remote management are not without their challenges, with some managers being forced to think more carefully about how they set targets and monitor performance. Although the test of trust has certainly been painful for some, it has forced managers to be more robust and prescriptive, which from an HR and employment law perspective is an absolute must.
The health and safety impact can also be a challenge. Monitoring your people’s working hours and mental health has never been more important as everyone deals with the stress and anxiety of living through a global pandemic. By working hours, we do not mean simply checking that people are completing tasks, as this would be a conduct or performance issue. Instead, we are referring to you checking that people are not working too much. With smart phones and laptops, it is all too easy to start working as soon as you wake up, and work longer into the evening, both of which are very dangerous. As employers, we have a duty of care for our people to ensure they are not only performing, but also achieving the correct balance.
Should you be flexible?
As businesses look forward to the easing of social and travel restrictions, now is the time to consider how your people will work in the future, from both a business and employee retention perspective.
This experience has shown us that a lot of traditional ‘office jobs’ can be done remotely. In most cases, it could be argued that they have also been done better, with increased focus and productivity arising from the lack of busy office distractions. When considering your plans, it is important to remember that employees have a legal right to request flexible working.
There are only eight potentially fair reasons to decline a flexible working request:
- the burden of additional costs
- the detrimental effect it would have on the company’s ability to meet customer demand
- the inability to reorganise work among existing colleagues
- the inability to recruit additional people
- the detrimental impact it would have on quality
- the detrimental impact it would have on performance
- the insufficiency of work available during the period proposed to work
- the company’s planned structural changes
You will note that the above does not include any reference to a contractual workplace, nor the fact that a business simply does not like the idea of people working from home.
If an employee has worked effectively from home for an extended period, and there has been no quantifiable drop in their productivity, it is going to be very difficult for employers to decline requests for remote working.
As the job market recovers, it is likely that a lot of employees will start looking at alternative positions if their flexible working requirements are not met. Therefore, it is vital that businesses take a serious look at how they can continue to operate more flexibly in the future.