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Flexible work patterns look set to be new normal

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As Covid restrictions end, firms are looking to return to normal working life. But the growth of hybrid and remote working means we need to figure out just what “normal” means now.

14th Apr 2022
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With the government rolling out its strategy for living with Covid-19 we are starting to see some normality return to working life. However, what is deemed to be normal now is changing dramatically, with large accounting businesses, including Deloitte and PwC, moving towards a hybrid workplace.

This move has allowed many accounting firms to recruit staff from more distant locations to the norm, increasing their potential talent pool and allowing them to deal with the “great resignation” as employees review their work/life choices as a result of the pandemic. Many firms are favouring a hybrid workplace, rather than fully remote, because of the results and exchange of ideas when employees meet face to face, as well as the benefits in the training and development of more junior staff. 

However, issues can arise around how any hybrid working arrangement may operate. Having worked from home for the past two years, many employees are now used to the convenience that working from home brings. Staff have been recruited in different areas or countries, and there are employees who do not want to return to the office and may be nervous about the end of Covid-19 restrictions and high infection rates across the UK. 

Place of work

The starting place is to look at the contract. This sets out the agreed terms and conditions, including place of work. Unless there is a specific agreement from both parties, this cannot be varied. 

The contractual place of work will be key for those employees that were hired and have always worked from home during the pandemic. If their contract states that they are home workers and the firm no longer can justify exclusive remote working, then there may be redundancy situations to deal with, and the fairness of that decision and process will need to be carefully managed. 

If employees were only ever expected to work from the office, then legally they can be expected to comply with the reasonable management instruction to do so again, unless they arrange otherwise or the business confirms a hybrid policy for all.

Can employees demand flexible working?

Once employed for 26 weeks, any employee can make a flexible working request. This could be about their place of work, or the hours of work and an employer can only refuse this for specific reasons, such as affecting quality and performance, and not meeting customer demand. The benefits of working from the office mentioned above are widely acknowledged and will not be too difficult to justify. Furthermore, a tribunal is not in a position to force any employer to accept a flexible working request. They can however issue a penalty of up to eight weeks of statutory pay (£571 per week). 

How far can employees live from the office?

In theory, an employee is able to work from anywhere, provided that they adhere to the terms of their contract. So, in a hybrid workplace there may be nothing stopping an employee from living in another country, provided their performance is not impacted, and they attend the office when required.

Practically, this will need to be carefully managed, particularly where a firm or business has hired employees in another country. They will need to think about how the employee will be paid, whether they need a work permit, whether there is a taxation issue on the employee or company as a result of the employee’s work and workplace being based in another country. Further issues could include the time zone impact and whether employment rights will be acquired in the country the employee is working and living in. 

Firms will also need to manage the health and safety issues that arise from remote working, deal with cross-border data protection issues, and ensure that they can manage the employee remotely as needed. 

Specific days in the office

Employees are hired to meet the needs of the business as part of their role. If that means working specific days from the office, then that will be perfectly appropriate as a request. But, if eligible, they are able to make a flexible working request for different days. This can be rejected if there is justification for doing so, such as not being able to organise work among other staff, not meeting customer demand, or people cannot be recruited to do the work. 

The future of the workplace

The sensible approach for any accounting firm is going to be a compromise that meets the needs of the business, as well as the needs of the employees. This is true particularly if firms want to retain talent and not lose staff to firms willing to offer hybrid working. 

With the end of Covid restrictions, it is becoming crucial for firms to have clear policies around hybrid working as well as meeting their expectations (and employment law obligations) in respect of health, safety, and wellbeing to support their return to the office.

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