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Can companies force staff to return to the office from 19 July?

·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·4-min read
Many people remain apprhensive about return to office. Photo: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty
Many people remain apprhensive about return to office. Photo: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty

After more than a year of working from home, office employees could be given a "default" right to work remotely after the pandemic.

The Government has confirmed it is considering introducing legislation to make it illegal for employers to insist on staff attending the workplace unless they can show it is essential. Ministers will consult on the plan over the next few months as part of a drive to promote flexible working.

Speaking to the Daily Mail, a Whitehall source said: “We are looking at introducing a default right to flexible working. That would cover things like reasonable requests by parents to start late so they can drop their kids at childcare. But in the case of office workers in particular it would also cover working from home – that would be the default right unless the employer could show good reason why someone should not.”

Although there would be no automatic legal right to work from home, it’s still a positive move for office workers who want to continue working remotely. According to a 2020 YouGov survey, 68% of British employees never worked from home before the pandemic. However, 57% say they want to be able to continue working from home when restrictions fully lift.

But while some employers have embraced remote working, others are keen for employees to return to their workplaces. So what are the current rules around working from home – and can your boss force you to return to the office on 19 July?

“According to several media reports, ministers are preparing to make flexible working a permanent feature of UK life after the pandemic, with plans to strengthen employees' rights to work from home or ask for different hours,” says Alan Price, CEO of BrightHR.

“The government will start a public consultation later this year on how to extend flexible working, potentially ensuring that people who have transitioned to a hybrid of home and office working during the pandemic will be able to maintain that pattern.”

Even before the pandemic, flexible working was becoming increasingly popular. Many staff who have maintained altered working arrangements during the pandemic, such as working from home, may want them to continue.

A man working from home
Many staff who have worked from home during the pandemic may want to continue. Photo: Getty

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“If it has been made clear that such arrangements were temporary, an employee could pursue this to make a flexible working request,” explains Price.

“Currently, it is up to employers if they choose to permit flexible working. This means that while all employees who have worked for a company for at least 26 weeks can make one request every 12 months, their employer does not need to agree to this,” he says. “That said, they do need to provide sound business reasons for a refusal, and any change is considered permanent unless agreed otherwise.”

The response to flexible working requests must be handled consistently and fairly. Employers should clearly evaluate why they approve or reject each request and be prepared to justify why this is to staff.

“If it appears that some employee requests are being approved over others, this could give rise to claims of favouritism and even discrimination,” says Price.

“To this end, the company's stance on flexible working should be made clear to staff through ongoing communications and the distribution of a policy, if one is available. This should clearly set out the process for flexible working requests, how they will be considered, and no guarantees that any requests will be approved.”

As social restrictions lift fully in July, some employers may be tempted to implement a blanket ban on home-working. If you want to continue working from home, you are legally entitled to make a request and for it to be considered.

An employer has a duty of care towards its employees and should not put them in danger. If you have any concerns – such as an underlying health problem – then it’s important that your workplace takes them seriously. However, it is ultimately up to your employer as to whether they allow you to work remotely.

Price adds it is worth remembering the benefits of remote work too. “Employers should remember that the ability to work flexibly may help with staff retention, maintain strong morale and even attract other talented individuals to the company that may not have come before,” says Price.

“They should also bear in mind that individual circumstances are different. Some staff may be better positioned to have increased flexibility due to the nature of their role than others, which should be considered.”

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