Will the world of work ever be the same again?
Almost overnight, in late March, we saw millions of people move to homeworking. The speed at which this happened and how quickly people adapted was quite phenomenal.
Necessity really is the mother of all invention and of change.
While we were given no option in the matter, when the world starts to return to some kind of normality (whatever that may be), it is inevitable that we will see a continuation of homeworking as business leaders make the most of the positives that have come out of this homeworking revolution.
It is not difficult to see how, for many businesses, there could be significant cost savings. From needing less office space, to reducing business travel (more meetings will continue to be done over Zoom or similar).
Being able to operate your business remotely can also expand the area in which you operate. You may move from local to national. And you can also widen the search area when recruiting if it no longer matters where someone lives because they will be working from home. This would open up a whole new pool of talent.
But not all businesses will want to continue homeworking, and for some it will not have been a positive experience. It simply will not suit some businesses (or parts of some businesses).
In addition, for some industries homeworking was never an option and will not be in the future. These industries have been on-hold during lockdown, uncertain of what the future holds. You cannot cut hair remotely and your dentist can hardly walk you through a dental exam or a filling over zoom!
There will be businesses who were able to move to home working, but now wish to return to the office. But they may be left with different situations as employees, forced to work from home during lockdown, now want to continue home working on a permanent basis.
And why not. Homeworking can have lots of benefits for employees. It saves on travel time and travel costs. Many employees working from home are looking after their kids because schools and childminders have been closed. People have more time and more ‘homelife’. Who wouldn’t want to keep this?
On the other hand, there will be businesses who have embraced home working and want to make this more permanent but find that employees want to return to the office. They miss the social interaction of working with colleagues, the environment of work that motivates them (versus working from the kitchen table!) and, for some, even the daily commute is welcome, with time to reflect, wind down and draw a clear line between work and home.
So, what about the businesses who want to continue homeworking, and the employee who does not? And the business who wants people back in the office, and the employee who now wants to work from home?
The first thing to say is that it will not always be a straightforward move from working from home to returning to the office. With the continuation of social distancing, for many, there will be a ‘phased’ return. This may mean only a limited number of employees can return at any one time, or that working hours are ‘staggered’ to reduce the total number of people in the workplace at any time.
A phased return will create more challenges for business leaders but may also give them more time to assess how the business can operate moving forward and the effectiveness – or otherwise - of homeworking.
For employees who formally request homeworking, it will be a case of managing requests through flexible working policies. If you don’t have one, you might want to put one in place quickly and make sure you follow the legislation / procedure required. It would also be advisable to consider a homeworking policy so you can think through the various aspects and be prepared (more of this later).
What are employees’ rights regarding flexible working?
Every employee has the right to request flexible working, but requests can be turned down if this would have a detrimental impact on the business. The legislation is quite clear on what this might be:
It’s clear that it may not be so easy to justify turning down a request for homeworking, on some of the above grounds, when employees have been working from home for the past few weeks or months!
So, what do you do? The real secret is to objectively assess the situation and be honest (with yourself and the employee!) If homeworking has proved to be wholly successful and employees have been just as productive, accept this and agree to home working. If you are at all unsure or want to assess this once we have returned to ‘normal’, you can agree to do it on a trial basis – and this would be a sensible thing to do.
If homeworking has already caused problems during this period, then you will have the evidence to back up your decision to decline a request.
You can also consider wider areas of homeworking and the homeworking environment. Looking after kids while also working is an exceptional circumstance and not something you would be expected to agree to once things are back to ‘normal’. This is where your homeworking policy will come in, as you can set out the circumstances in which you would consider homeworking, looking at a number of criteria including environment, the job role, the individual’s own personal attributes and ability to work remotely.
Finally, require employees to complete a flexible working application. This requires them to set out how they believe the job role can be done and you can then consider the request in line with their application.
People who want to return to the office
So, what about the other situation?
You want to move to more homeworking, but people want to return to the office.
It is important to try to understand why people may be resistant to homeworking. Many may have struggled with homeworking in terms of motivation and metal health (and a feeling of isolation), lack of social interaction or may have limited space at home.
You may be able to consider doing a mixture of homeworking and office based and, dare I say it, be able to please everyone.
But even if this is possible, make sure that you retain flexibility for the business. For example, you can require people to attend the office when needed and can end home working if problems arise. Consideration also needs to be given to managing home workers, so train your managers in how to manage remote teams.
Moving to homeworking on a permanent basis (for some or all employees) will mean a change of terms that may require you to consult with employees. You will also need to look in more detail at equipment and health and safety. These areas may not have been given the normal scrutiny when you first moved to homeworking out of necessity at the beginning of Covid-19 (take a look at our free resources on homeworking here).
Returning to work may also mean restructuring and reviewing positions and duties as you assess the impact this situation has had on the economy and your business (take a look at our article on ‘what next’ for more information).
There are no magical answers as each business will have its own needs and preferences. And it might be a bit of trial and error … so give yourself flexibility and do things on a trial basis where possible so you can assess how things are working in practice.
The world of work will never be quite the same again. Businesses do however have an opportunity to make the most of what we have all learnt and embrace the technology that is new to many of us (I was quite nervous about using Zoom, but am now quite comfortable having remote meetings).
We will need to find our new ‘normal’ but in doing so we should not forget the one thing that we have all realised and all missed during this crisis. We are social animals. We need contact, we need people around us. For some, a large part of their social contact is found in the workplace.
Drafting of all your HR documents, policies and procedures, codes of conduct and standards, and employee handbook.
Building of your branded YourHR.space site, configuration, logins for existing employees and the launch of the site.