Work-life for office-based workers changed drastically over the last two years, with thousands of us forced to work from home during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many continue to work from home, some or all of the time, in 2022 as UK employers struggle to keep their policies updated with news of rapidly-spreading Covid variants.

Many speculate that flexible working is an inevitable future, and employers will now be considering their options in implementing policies that balance the needs of the business with the needs of their employees.

What should employers consider when making these changes?

1. Flexible Working Claims

Since the pandemic, Employment Tribunals have seen a 52% increase in flexible working claims, likely driven by employees resisting attempts by employers to return them to the office, or employees seeking to build more flexibility into their roles.

Under the current legislation, flexible working requests must be considered reasonably by employers, and may only be refused on eight specified grounds. The rise of remote working during the pandemic means that many employers will find it harder to justify the rejection of requests on the ground that work cannot be carried out from home, as they have been doing so effectively.

My colleagues, Isabella MacPherson and Michael Powner, published an article that may prove useful for employers facing flexible working requests from their employees and how best to handle them.

Employers considering a long-term flexible working arrangement will acknowledge the effect that the pandemic has had on their business and that many employees would benefit from the flexibility of a hybrid arrangement. The avoidance of potential sex and disability discrimination claims is a further benefit that should also be considered.

2. Four-day Working Week

Also in the news this year, various UK businesses are taking part in a pilot study run by Oxford and Cambridge academics into the four-day working week. This study investigates the viability of a four-day working week, reducing standard hours by a fifth but with no loss of pay. Canon’s UK arm, Morrison’s Bradford headquarters and Unilever’s New Zealand arm are just some of the organisations that have considered the change and various international studies have taken place on the new scheme. For example, a study in Iceland found “an overwhelming success” in July 2021, with productivity remaining the same or improving in the majority of workplaces.

Whilst many employers will see this as too drastic a move, particularly following the pandemic’s financial impact, it is clear that the potential of a four-day week will continue to crop up in our news feeds. Employers move in this direction in the near future to support employees faced with technology burn-out and due to the ever-increasing expectation on workplaces to be mindful of employee wellbeing.

3. Talent Competition and Wellbeing

There is no doubt that the prospect of a four-day working week and a hybrid working environment would be hugely attractive to prospective job candidates. In a study by the Office of National Statistics, 85% of working adults currently homeworking wanted to use a “hybrid” approach of both home and office working in the future. In fact, within the same study, improved staff wellbeing, reduced overheads and increased productivity were common reasons why businesses intend to use increased homeworking in the future.

This may be an ideal time for employers to consider using their hybrid working offering to get ahead in the recruitment market, with HR and talent roles emerging among the fastest growing in the UK and salaries set to increase in the first quarter of 2022 by up to 25%.

4. Office Space

With the UK government’s announcement of the return to the office and the end of restrictions, it will be important to many employers to consider the future of the workspace itself and how committed their existing employees will be to a complete return.

My colleagues, Emma Preece and Mark White, have published an article that considers the legal and practical differences of traditional vs the modern, flexible, ready-to-use office space, including the key issues for those looking at investing in office space of any kind.

5. Where to Start

If you are considering a shift to flexible working, a good starting point would be the implementation of a flexible working policy, which would explain the employees’ rights to request changes to their working arrangements and put employees on notice that you will consider these issues appropriately. Many employees will be unaware of their right to raise a flexible working request and this will show that you are committed to supporting these changes.

If you have any questions in relation to flexible working or would like to discuss your options, please get in touch with us.