The World of Work by Harry Sherrard

Flexible Working – dawn of a new era?

Much has been written and discussed over the last few months about the demise of the office. Having been abruptly forced to abandon the office and to work remotely using Zoom and similar resources, employees, we are told, will want to continue working from home indefinitely. That’s not the case, incidentally, here at Sherrards. As soon as lockdown eased and having taken a number of measures to make the office environment safer, the majority of our staff were keen to return to the office. The interaction with colleagues is appreciated and most are of the view that, whilst there are some advantages to working from home, overall, working together as a cohesive team in the office is more effective. This is particularly so from the point of view of learning from colleagues and in relation to creative work.

But returning to the broader picture, an issue that employers are increasingly encountering is employees showing reluctance to return to the workplace, despite many measures being put in place to ensure their safety. Contracts of employment specify that the office is the place of work, and employees wanting to continue to work from home are in effect making informal flexible working requests. Some employees, for example those with health problems who are shielding, and who fall into one of the Government’s vulnerable categories, are more likely to have these requests granted. For healthy employees, who accept that the workplace has been made as safe as practical, but wish to continue to work from home for convenience reasons, employers may need to move the discussion to an instruction to return to the workplace. Employees could respond to this instruction by submitting a formal flexible working request, asking to work from home. How would this play out?

Employees’ perceptions and the feasibility of working from home have substantially changed over the last several months, but the law hasn’t. As before, employers can refuse to agree to flexible working on one of a number of business grounds. One of the potential grounds for refusing flexible working request is the burden of additional costs. Another is detrimental effect on the ability to meet customer demand. But the point that many commentators are missing is that the bar is set low for employers. It is not necessary to demonstrate extremely high and onerous costs; it is not necessary to demonstrate that the ability to meet customer demand would be detrimentally affected in a major way. Any quantifiable additional cost or detrimental impact gets the employer home. So, contrary to the impression that has been given in the media, employers are in fact well-placed to turn down requests for flexible working and (subject to any new Government guidance or the Covid situation deteriorating) to secure a return to the workplace of the majority of their employees.

We will continue to keep you updated on general employment law news and any news linked to the coronavirus pandemic via regular blogs and our YouTube channel. Click here for our YouTube channel and watch the latest videos on updates during the crisis.

Meanwhile, if you would like further information on any of the topics detailed in this blog please email or call the office on 01273 834120 to talk to a member of our team.

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