Many people are getting used to working from home as the coronavirus lockdown continues. While there are challenges to navigate — like homeschooling children — many are enjoying perks such as the lack of commuting and a better work-life balance.
Last year, only 1.7 million people in the UK worked from home. Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that just 5% of the active 32.6 million UK workers considered their home as their main place of work in 2019.
Around 70% of workers — 23.9 million people — had zero experience of working from home prior to the introduction of social isolation measures.
After the pandemic passes, it is thought there will be a cultural shift towards working from home. Having already had a “trial run” of remote working, some people may want to continue to do so — either full-time or at least a few days a week.
So what are your rights when it comes to working from home — and will we enshrine the right to work remotely in law in the future?
Since 2003, working parents in the UK have been entitled to request flexible working for childcare reasons. In 2014, the right was extended to all employees in the UK with at least 26 weeks’ continuous service.
At the moment, employees have the legal right to request flexible working for any reason. This can be to request a change to full-time or part-time work, job-share, work from home, or a change of working days or hours. Employers are legally obliged to consider flexible working requests in a “reasonable” manner.
“Ultimately it is down to employers how, where and when their employees work, subject to guidance from the government. Employers are free to decide which staff should be permitted to work from home and can base their decisions on the past performance, and behaviours, of the employee in question,” says Kate Palmer, associate director of advisory at the HR, employment law and health & safety consultancy firm Peninsula.
Some countries have gone further to ensure employees have flexibility when it comes to where and when they work. In Finland, the Working Hours Act 2020, introduced in January, allows people to decide the location of their work, as well as their working hours. Essentially, the employer defines the work tasks, aims and overall schedule, but the employee can determine the way they work.
There is no such legal arrangement in the UK, but whether this could be an option in the future remains to be seen.
“Although flexible working arrangements such as homeworking are becoming increasingly popular, there is no legal expectation on employers to permit this,” says Palmer. “The closest the law currently gets is permitting all employees the right to request flexible working hours after 26 weeks of continuous service, which can include home working.
“Employers do not need to allow flexible working or homeworking, but they do have to provide sound business reasons for refusing them. Employees can make one request every 12 months.”
A future law on homeworking has not currently been confirmed by the government, but it may be something that is tabled as companies start to implement social distancing procedures in the workplace.
“In May 2020, it was reported by the Telegraph that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy had put forward the idea to the government of enshrining the right to work from home in law,” Palmer adds.
However, it is likely that more employers will be open to allowing staff to work from home, at least part of the time. While the particulars of homeworking may have seemed difficult at first, employers and employees have likely become used to these arrangements by now.
“They may feel more comfortable making them a permanent option. As social distancing is expected to remain the norm for some time, companies will likely have to consider different ways to keep the number of staff in the workplace down,” Palmer says.
“Homeworking presents a way of doing this while also providing an opportunity for staff to continue doing their roles, meaning we might see homeworking continuing for some time.”