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No longer a perk for a lucky few, flexible working is becoming the norm in many workplaces. Before the pandemic, it was relatively easy for employers to refuse a work from home request or a change of hours if they said it would negatively impact operations.
However, employers are now finding it more challenging to refuse these requests as employees can show they have effectively carried out their role from home during the crisis.
The potential repercussions of getting this wrong can be costly. Recently, an estate agent won a payout of more than £180,000 ($246,232) after her boss refused to let her leave work early to pick up her daughter from nursery.
Alice Thompson, a sales manager at Manors estate agents in London, asked to work for four days a week and finish at 5pm rather than 6pm. Company director Paul Sellar rejected her request and said the business could not afford for her to be part-time, causing her to resign.
Thompson took Manors to an employment tribunal claiming sex discrimination and was awarded £184,961.32 after a panel found that making her work until 6pm, when nurseries normally close, put her at a disadvantage.
In April 2003, the UK government introduced the "right to request flexible working" which historically applied to parents and certain other carers. The legislation now includes all employees with at least 26 weeks' continuous employment, regardless of parental or caring responsibilities.
Employers have a duty to consider a request in a reasonable manner and can only refuse one if they can show that one of a specific number of grounds apply.
“With workforces across the country divided between those looking forward to the return, and those content working from home, if an employee contract says their place of work is the office, they have no automatic legal right to work remotely,” says Gill McAteer, head of employment law at Citation. “What they need to do is raise a request to work from home through the flexible working process.”
Although employers have the power to decide where employees work, it's still in the interest of the business to take on board its staff's needs. “Flexible and hybrid working can lead to a happier workforce, less bills to pay, and even the need for less office space. However this can be a fine art to ensure it suits everyone,” says McAteer.
So how can employers ensure they support flexible working — and avoid getting into trouble for discrimination?
Remember flexible working doesn't mean more free time
It's a common misconception that working from home means an employee has more free time. Research has shown remote employees have worked longer hours during the pandemic — so employers need to ensure they aren’t expecting too much from their workers.
“It’s even more important to check in on employees when they are working remotely. Check they are coping with their workload, and don’t feel pressured to answer calls and emails out of office hours, just because their laptop is with them,” says McAteer.
There is no one size fits all
Each employee will have different needs, and creating a working approach that caters to everyone can increase performance.
“Not having set days in the office, and some flexibility in working hours can improve employee output,” says McAteer. “There is always the option to have attendance requirements for important meetings and training sessions, but if there isn’t an essential reason, putting trust in employees to decide for themselves can go a long way.
“However, bear in mind that widespread homeworking can bring huge challenges for developing younger colleagues and team collaboration. If you are setting up a hybrid arrangement, it is a good idea to set some structure around this so you maximise development and collaboration opportunities by having the right people in the office at the right time.”
Make sure remote workers aren’t left behind
It's important not to forget remote workers when in the office. Some employees may use flexible working more than others, however a remote worker should still feel included in meetings.
It's also important not to forget the art of face to face catch ups. Flexible working can be very positive for employees, but scheduling occasional in-person meetings can help improve employee relations.