Despite the latest delay in return to the workplace, a huge number of people will be heading back at some stage this summer. Whether furloughed or simply banished to ‘working from home’, millions of employees up and down the country will soon be welcomed back through the doors that many of them last exited in March 2020.

A lot of workplaces will have changed dramatically since then, and work patterns and practices are being reconfigured too.

Whatever requirements a particular business operating in a specific sector may need to observe, once restrictions are lifted, bosses are conscious that workspaces need to be flexible enough to adapt quickly, should new constraints become necessary following another spike in infections, next winter or beyond.
Flexibility will be key, whether businesses are continuing to allow homeworking or operating a hybrid model, and the appetite for staff to work flexibly will have increased too.

Flexible working was already back on the government’s agenda, before the pandemic forced the issue to the front of everyone’s minds. The Conservative Party’s 2019 election manifesto included the pledge. “We will encourage flexible working and consult on making it the default unless employers have good reasons not to.”

The right to request flexible working was introduced for parents and carers back in 2003 and extended to include any employee in 2014. However, while working from home has always been popular, the most common arrangements before the pandemic concerned working different hours, such as flexitime, reduced or compressed hours or even term-time working.

Now, the government’s flexible working taskforce is apparently drawing up guidance that will encourage firms to make some of the arrangements that were necessary during the pandemic, more permanent.

There is no doubt that new modes of working are already being introduced and that there are considerable benefits for companies and their employees, but there also needs to be some caution.

Employers still have a duty to ensure that employees have a safe place in which to work. While more senior staff responsible for drawing up plans may have a spare bedroom that doubles as an office, a local co-working space to drop into or even an office pod at the end of the garden, spare a thought for the young couple living and working in a one-bedroom flat with a young baby.

It’s not just the practicalities of homeworking that could cause headaches for HR managers. Many people like “going to work” for the social interaction with colleagues and the detachment from home life. We are only just beginning to understand the mental health implications of having to live and work in the same space, without the separation offered by any sort of commute.

One might think that perennial HR issues such as harassment will become easier to manage if staff aren’t meeting in person quite as much, but there is also less opportunity for such behaviours to be spotted or monitored.

Several commentators have also highlighted the risk of creating a two-tier world of work, in which those whose jobs lend themselves to homeworking, enjoy the benefits, such as the huge savings in time and money spent commuting.

Might there even be a discrimination issue for some firms if, like several of the big equal pay claims of the past decade, certain roles that cannot benefit from homeworking tend to occupied by employees of one gender or even different ages?

Whenever we get to return to the workplace in 2021, it will have changed enormously. But in many ways, the changes might only just be beginning.

Disclaimer - all information in this article was correct at time of publishing.

 
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