As COVID-19 restrictions start to ease, many businesses are planning for what the future world of work, post pandemic will look like.
What is hybrid working?
There have been various announcements from big companies like Facebook and Nationwide to confirm that going forward they will allow their staff to work wherever they like. Others are being more prescriptive in confirming that they will allow a split of home and office based work, such as 2 or 3 days in the office and the remainder at home, termed by many as ‘hybrid working.’ This enables staff to retain the benefits of working from home – less time spent commuting, more time to focus and a better work/life balance to name a few, whilst also benefitting from collaborating with colleagues in real life and not over Zoom, supervising and mentoring more junior members of staff not to mention the social side of office life.
Hybrid working in the short term
At the time of writing, the need for employees to work from home wherever possible is expected to remain a Government instruction until towards the end of June 2021. At present it is not known if social distancing will be required after that date. If it is then many organisations are likely to need to offer hybrid working on a temporary basis at least as a way of continuing to comply with Government guidance to ensure that staff returning to their normal place of work are able to carry out their duties at a safe distance from one another. In addition, some staff may not have been offered their vaccine, be pregnant or high risk or have caring responsibilities and so employers may decide to allow those employees to continue working from home whilst allowing others to return for part of the working week.
Hybrid working in the long term
It is highly recommended that employers communicate with their staff about their plans for the return to work. It is good practice to conduct a survey of staff to understand how they are feeling about the prospect of this and what they envisage the new normal to look like. Failure to do could mean that employees have changes forced upon them that they do not want, which could cause retention problems if staff choose to move to competitors who implement a more desirable working model.
For those who have been working from home for over a year since the first lockdown in March 2020 the thought of getting on a busy commuter train or going back to the office and suddenly mixing with lots of different people is likely to seem extremely daunting. The dialogue between employers and employees will inevitably have to include some reassurance about the measures that have been put in place to ensure the safe return to work. For example, some workplaces have chosen to engage contractors to regularly ‘fog’ the offices with an antiviral disinfectant solution to reduce the risk of COVID-19 surviving on surfaces.
Employees could also be offered flexibility with start and finish times so that they can travel at less busy times so that they can ease themselves back into their commute and the return to normality.
Legal implications of hybrid working
Undoubtedly the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many businesses to change their entire working model and has accelerated a cultural change that would otherwise have taken many years to implement.
Organisations who do not move with the times and offer hybrid working are likely to struggle with staff retention with employees moving to a competitor who embraces the hybrid model.
However, for those businesses who do decide to implement hybrid working on a long term basis, this is likely to constitute a permanent change to an employee’s terms and conditions of employment. Technically an employee has to consent to a change to their contract. If they do not, then a formal consultation process may be necessary with the aim of obtaining the employee’s agreement.
If that is not forthcoming then an employer may decide to terminate the employee’s existing employment contract and offer them a new one with the hybrid working model. However, there is a risk of unfair dismissal claims being pursued as a result.
Those who do agree to work from home on a more permanent basis, even if only part of the time may need to disclose this to their mortgage provider/landlord and home insurance company. In time employers may also need to review their own internal policies to reflect the new way of working for example, IT security such as whether employee’s can use their own devices of whether they must be company issued, as well as data protection and health and safety.
This is a complex area of law which is rapidly developing. For further information on your specific circumstances please contact Joanna Sutton of Nockolds Solicitors (firstname.lastname@example.org or 0203 892 6811).