What will the future of the office look like?
During the last five months, the pace of workplace change has accelerated from “steady progress” into the fast lane. Overnight, staff found themselves working from home, while key workers entered their workplaces with social distancing and enhanced hygiene measures.
When the economic impact took its toll, redundancy and furlough were widespread. As the UK emerges from lockdown and staff gradually return to the workplace, what does the future hold and what employment law issues should companies consider?
Some of the key areas in this vast topic are explored below.
Blended model of working
There remains much uncertainty around how the “new norm” will look in our workplaces. Inevitably it will vary across different sectors. It looks increasingly likely that employers will adopt a blended model, where employees split their time between home and the office.
Many employees have enjoyed the loss of their daily commute and benefited from the time and money saved by working from home and the flexibility it gives them. Numerous surveys report that most employees want to retain flexibility, with the optimal model being an even split between home and office.
Despite the Prime Minister encouraging office workers in England to return to the workplace, many are staying at home. With concerns over the use of public transport, childcare and localised lockdowns, many workers are understandably reluctant.
The Scottish Government has yet to give employers the green light to re-open non-essential offices – this is scheduled for 14 September. Currently, the default position remains in Scotland to work from home, if possible.
Employers are taking stock and looking ahead – noting that the lockdown “home-working trial” has generally worked well, delivering significant financial savings.
So what factors should employers be considering as they look to the future?
Organisations will need to decide on their people strategy for remote working. Do they want to be reactive or proactive with embracing change? One option is to lead the charge, highlighting to employees their options and facilitate flexibility. The alternative is to simply deal with flexible working requests as they come in. Ideally, employers should devise a strategy which considers both the statutory process for flexible working requests but also the wider organisational needs of the business.
What about support and mentoring for junior colleagues? How will onboarding of new staff and induction measures operate where teams are not working closely together? These issues are incredibly important so the strategy needs to address how teams will communicate with each other and train colleagues when working remotely.
Another issue that we have encountered is requests to work from abroad. What about those with family overseas who want to work there – or those lucky employees who have a house abroad? Will the strategy allow homeworking overseas? It sounds attractive, but there are a host of legal and tax implications which employers need to consider.
There is a major difference between working from home under government instruction in a global pandemic, and making that a permanent arrangement. Homeworking policies need to set out the organisational position on expenses incurred from working at home, insurance and data protection issues. Of course, health and safety is a serious concern so risk assessments are vital for looking at not only desktop arrangements but also mental health and well-being.
Will we see a move to a 4-day working week?
A UK campaign group has been set up to push for a four-day working week on the basis it could be a powerful tool to recover from this crisis. A new initiative in Scotland, set up by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, The Post-Covid-19 Futures Commission, is already looking into a number of similar measures to help Scotland recover from the impact of coronavirus – with a four-day working week tabled for discussion. While the prospect of more opportunities to exercise, relax and spend time with the family will be welcomed by many, these proposals may go nowhere if they are not embraced by leading employers. However, such initiatives do show an appetite for change.
The shape of things to come?
Organisations may choose to wait and see what happens during our first winter of COVID-19 before shaping their long-term approach.
As we go into the traditional season for coughs and colds, employers need to have a clear policy on when employees should get COVID tested and a plan for how to deal with increased absences through testing and self-isolation. The prospect of localised lockdowns (involving the resurgence of school closures) and an overall spike in cases means there may be little benefit in returning employees back to an office only to return to work from home again. Flexibility will be key in responding to this evolving situation.
While the future remains uncertain, it is clear that the coming months will shape the views on how we adapt our working patterns in the longer term.
You can access our Future of Work series which looks at the different areas organisations will need to consider through a series of know-how recordings.
Gavin Macgregor, Senior Associate at law firm CMS.