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Work flexibility post-pandemic – what will be the new normal?

Alice Ramsay and Sonya Cassell from Leigh Day's employment and discrimination department discuss flexible working post-pandemic and what will be the 'new normal'

Posted on 28 May 2021

Over a year has passed since our last blog on COVID-19 and the increase in home working prompted by the pandemic. Reflecting back on what has happened over the past few months, and looking ahead to the future, how close are we to achieving all that was on our wish list for working life after the public health crisis?

At the time of writing our last blog, we had only been in lockdown for around two months. We did not know then how many lives would be lost to COVID-19 or the number of people who would experience the long-term effects of coronavirus. We did not know the extent of the pressure that would be placed on key workers, people combining work from home and looking after children, and others who experienced particularly challenging times related to the pandemic. We did not know then that there would be two further lockdowns ahead and that, a year on, many office-based businesses would still not have reversed the temporary requirement for their staff to work from home because of the pandemic.

The Government’s roadmap out of lockdown sets out a four-step plan for the lifting of COVID-19-related restrictions for people living in England. The fourth step, easing of all legal limits on social contact, is due to take place not before 21 June 2021, subject to review. It seems possible, however, that the emergence of new variants of COVID-19 and their spread across the UK may push back this timetable and that people may be required to or may choose to work from home for longer than initially planned.

Although the impact of the new variants of COVID-19 remains uncertain, what does seem potentially more certain is employers’ willingness to consider home working on a long-term basis or a hybrid approach of a split between time spent working in the office and work from home. This could create significant benefits for both employees and employers, although there are potential issues to be considered to ensure that employees are able to maintain a healthy separation between work and home life.

Planning during a pandemic is difficult, for employers and employees alike, particularly for those who are clinically vulnerable or otherwise concerned about working in an office environment. Based on the Government’s current roadmap out of lockdown, however, now would be a good time for businesses (if they have not already done so) to consider what their strategies are for bringing staff back into the workplace and making sure that they comply with anti-discrimination legislation when considering any requests from staff to continue working from home.

The return to the office may take many forms. Some businesses may wish for staff to continue working from home for some or part of the week on a long-term basis because of the perceived benefits of home working. Working from home or hybrid office/home working may also be continued on a temporary basis due to the need for social distancing and uncertainty regarding the safety of returning to the office in the context of the spread of new variants of COVID-19 and the fact that the vaccination programme is still being rolled out. Other businesses may wish for all of their staff to return to the office environment as soon as possible. Goldman Sachs, for example, has announced its intention for all staff to return to the office in June 2021.

If an employer wishes for their staff to return to the office, an employee can still make a flexible working request if they wish to work from home. Employees with 26 weeks’ service have a statutory right to request flexible working arrangements such as home working, compressed hours (for example, working a five-day week across four days), changing when hours are worked, and/or reducing the number of hours worked.

Our last blog set out the legal framework for requesting a flexible working arrangement. The process for making a request and what an employer must do on receiving a request remains unchanged. The Flex for All campaign mentioned in our last blog is ongoing and calls remain for the right to make a statutory flexible working request to be available from the first day of employment, including from the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development), which has introduced a ‘Flex From 1st’ campaign and has recently highlighted the benefits of home working and other flexible working arrangements (for example, job-shares, compressed hours, term-time working, etc) in promoting inclusion by enabling people to participate in work who would otherwise be unable to get to a particular workplace or work particular hours.

It is projected that commuting patterns will vary significantly as a result of the pandemic and the Government has recently announced that flexible season tickets will be introduced on certain routes for people who commute two or three times a week, marking a move away from standard monthly season tickets. This will make it easier for employees to combine working from home for some of the week and working from the office for some of the week, and may also be of benefit to part-time workers as well.

In the long term, we remain hopeful that employers and employees will work together in navigating the possibility of greater flexibility in how work is done, whether from home, in compressed hours, or as part of job-share arrangements. This would have benefits for employers, employees, families, and wider society. COVID-19 has brought so many challenges for so many people but ushering in a more positive attitude to flexible working amongst businesses may, hopefully, be one COVID-19 related development that is here to stay.

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Alice Ramsay

Alice Ramsay

Alice Ramsay is a solicitor in the employment department.

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Alice Ramsay and Sonya Cassell from Leigh Day's Employment and Discrimination Department consider whether working from home could become the 'new normal' after the Covid-19 pandemic is behind us.