The COVID-19 pandemic and resultant shutdown in the UK have caused a massive shift in the way we work, with many employers transitioning to home working in a matter of days. Notwithstanding the devastating effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on personal lives and the economy, many employers have found the move to a predominantly home working culture to be largely successful. So what does the future hold for workplaces as the country begins to emerge from the lockdown?
Transitioning to home working on a permanent basis
Given the success that many employers have had with home working during the COVID-19 pandemic, some are now considering making a move to working from home on a more permanent basis. There have been some high-profile announcements to this effect in the media, including Twitter, which announced that its employees will be able to work from home ‘forever.’
Lockdown demonstrated that it is possible for employers and employees to adapt quickly to home working, and the potential benefits of permanent home working are significant. Employers can make considerable savings on expensive offices and recruit from a wider pool of talent that is not dictated by geographical constraints. Furthermore, home working can have multiple benefits from an employee wellbeing perspective, which can bring benefits to employers, such as better employee retention and engagement.
When considering a permanent shift to home working, employers will need to decide if it is right for their workforce and how long-term home working would affect employees’ roles. Employers should also check whether employees’ contracts contain mobility clauses. If so, employers will likely be able to change their employees’ place of work to their home, but if not, a permanent shift to home working may amount to a change in terms and conditions necessitating employee consent. Employers will also need to consider the employees themselves; while many employees may be happy to continue working from home, some may be unreceptive to such a move.
There may be benefits to home working, however, a shared office space is important in fostering a company culture and sense of cohesiveness, so employers should consider how this can be done remotely, such as regular remote catch-ups and monthly in-person team meetings at a central location. Additionally, employers should be mindful that home working can create an ‘always on’ mentality and take steps to ensure that employees are not overworking.
Employers should also consider the logistics of a more permanent shift to home-working. Employers have a duty to ensure employees’ health and safety, which extends to employees working from home. Employers should check that it is safe for employees to work from home and should assist employees with any adaptations. Many employers will prefer to supply their employees with the necessary computer equipment so that they can control its use and ensure it is of a proper, functioning standard. Employers should make it clear that such equipment remains the property of the employer and put restrictions on its use.
In recent years, the benefits of working flexibly have often been highlighted by the media, but the standard nine-to-five office hours have prevailed for the majority. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees have had to work more flexibly and have demonstrated high levels of productivity while doing so. This may make employers more amenable to flexible working arrangements in the future, and harder for employers who do not want to allow such arrangements to argue that they are not feasible. More flexible and agile working is therefore likely to increase following the lockdown.
The shutdown in the UK meant many employers had to react fast in transitioning their workforces to working from home, and, where home working was not possible, put in place additional measures to make the workplace safe. The threat of a second wave of infection remains, so employers should consider workplace planning and contingency arrangements for such an event.
It seems inevitable that COVID-19 will have wide-ranging impacts on all aspects of UK workplaces. International businesses, for example, will need to review the feasibility of international travel. Many employees may be reluctant to travel for business internationally for the foreseeable future, particularly while the threat of a second wave of infections remains. Businesses may therefore need to implement dynamic solutions and use technology to continue conducting business internationally.
Likewise, workplace events and conferences are likely to be restricted for some months. The lockdown has seen a proliferation of webinars and online virtual team events, and these are likely to remain popular and necessary. Employers with client-facing businesses will also need to think about how they can continue to reach out to clients and develop their businesses remotely in a meaningful and effective way.