When the nation was told to “stay safe and stay home” in March 2020, employers had to adapt very quickly to an entirely new way of working.  Where workplace-based working had always been expected for the majority, remote working was suddenly the new normal.  As we emerge from the pandemic, the government’s flexible working taskforce has recommended that flexible working should be the default position for all workers.  Already some employers across industries have said that hybrid working will be implemented across their businesses.  So, what does this mean practically?

1. Contracts of Employment

Clearly, a change to hybrid working is, to all intents and purposes, a change to the place of work.  It would be a mistake, however, for employers to simply issue new contracts with a hybrid work location clause without first consulting with staff and getting agreement as for many, such a change could be unsuitable as they may not have suitable homes from which to work long-term.  Whilst that doesn’t mean employers cannot impose the change – certainly after meaningful consultation and majority buy-in – but they may well have to offer redundancy to staff for whom such a change in place of work is not suitable.  Alternatively, employers may need to allow some staff to continue working solely from the workplace, in which case they will need to support and manage staff who are hybrid working to ensure that they are treated fairly and not disadvantaged by virtue of not being as visible. 

2. Review polices and procedures

The obvious first step for employers who wish to move towards hybrid working is to formulate a hybrid and home-working policy for inclusion in the staff handbook.  The policy needs to consider all the advantages and risks of remote working and to set out clearly why the decision has been taken to implement this new policy as well as explaining how the company will address the pitfalls which will naturally arise. 

Clearly, the advantages of hybrid working are significant and numerous and are what the government has seized upon.  These include reduced overhead costs for employers; increased productivity due to reduced travel time and travel related stresses; better motivation for staff who specifically request this way of working; retention of staff who may otherwise have been lost due to relocation or caring responsibilities and attractive to candidates during recruitment processes. 

However, it’s easy to get carried away with the pros and to ignore the cons.  Employers who haven’t thought how to anticipate problems, address the downsides and deal with issues before they arise are setting themselves up for a fall.

Some of the issues that employers should consider, therefore are:

2.1 Culture – with lots of people working remotely, this may damage team-work and weaken the workplace culture. It may become necessary to encourage more out of work activities for staff but this may impact on those employees who have moved further away because of the new hybrid working policy and they, in turn, may be less able to attend team-building events out of hours.  This could lead to unfair disparity in treatment between staff who can attend and those who can’t.  It may also hinder women who may be less able than their male colleagues to engage in out of hours team-building and social gatherings due to many having other caring responsibilities.

2.2 Many employers are concerned about the effectiveness of management and oversight if staff are working remotely. It is going to be much more important for staff to be given regular feedback and support in a perhaps more formal and structured way than when they were going into work every day.  In some ways this could improve performance as managers will be forced to address issues regularly and before they turn from minor concerns to major ones. 

2.3 A real problem is going to be how more junior employees can learn and develop as well as build relationships with senior management. A lack of visibility and mentoring could result in lost career opportunity and, in fact, could potentially result in even fewer women getting promoted to senior and director level roles than is currently the case; it is inevitable that those who wish to work remotely are more likely to be those with other responsibilities outside of the workplace and, sadly even in 2021, that is still primarily women.  Employers are going to have to give very real thought to this issue to ensure that their remote/hybrid policies deal specifically with ways in which this potential disparity can be mitigated against.

2.4 Whilst there is evidence that productivity can increase when employers allow a more flexible way of working, there is also the risk that some employees will take advantage of the new approach to slack off. However, the lazy/poor performing employee has always existed and there is no reason to assume that otherwise good performers will suddenly become bad performers just because they don’t have to physically go into the office.  Employers had to quickly develop trust during the pandemic and hopefully they will retain that now we are slowly emerging from it.

2.5 Whilst there are clearly a lot of mental health advantages of working remotely (less stress from travel, more flexibility in terms of childcare etc), for many it has been a real challenge. If the home environment is not conducive to home-working this is a real risk to both mental and physical health and employers must ensure that anyone working remotely has a safe place in which to do so.  Their obligations in respect of their staff’s health and safety extends outside of the office if working remotely is to become the norm.  Employers will need to do Health and Safety risk assessments and provide suitable office chairs/desks and other equipment for their staff.  Furthermore, working from a laptop full time is not safe so there will need to be significant investment in docking stations, external monitors, keyboards and mice as well as other technology to enable staff to communicate effectively even when not physically together.

2.6 Related to health and safety is employees’ hours of work. When people work from home, there is evidence that they find it harder to switch off and stop working.  Employers need to actively encourage their staff to log-out by a certain time and not to respond to e-mails and calls outside of fixed working hours.  It is already an issue and could become a tsunami of problems if people are working from home most of the time.

2.7 Another issue is confidentiality. It is far easier for employers to keep confidential information confidential where staff are working on computers in an enclosed office away from the general public.  Clearly that is going to be much more difficult where staff could be working from shared work-spaces either at home or outside the home.  If confidentiality is important (which it is likely to be for most employers) then how, when and where staff work when outside of the office will need to be dealt with in the hybrid working policy.  This is also something that the data protection policy will need to address and it may be that staff need to all be issued with company laptops rather than be allowed to use their own computers to ensure security of data.

2.8 Finally, any changes that are implemented should be accompanied by training of staff on the new associated policies and procedures introduced to complement the changes to working practices. It is not enough to write the policies, staff must also be made aware of them and told of the sanctions if they breach them.

We are entering a brave new world in the workplace and time will tell whether the advantages outweigh the downsides but with care and consultation, I am hopeful that they will.