The office is open for business – or is it?

Posted 21/09/2020 : By: Kathryn Pratt

The Government is encouraging people to get back to the office as schools have reopened while ministers warn that continuing to work from home could make staff ‘vulnerable’ to being sacked. 

Whilst there are obvious benefits to people returning to the workplace, from improving mental health to boosting the city economies, statements like this will leave many employees, in particular those who are clinically vulnerable, feeling forced to choose between their job and their health. A recent survey of workers by the CIPD found that 45% are anxious about returning to the workplace, rising to 57% if they have a non-physical health condition and 48% if they have a physical one. Additionally, 12% don’t trust their employer to provide a safe environment when they return to the workplace.

Regardless of the individual situation, we now look at what is reasonable behaviour by employers in relation to getting their employees back to the office.

Is it reasonable for employers to force employees back to the workplace?

From 1 August 2020, the Government guidance changed, and employers now have more discretion to ask employees to return to the workplace, if it safe to do so. All UK businesses who ask their staff members to return to work are required to undertake a risk assessment and put in place various measures to protect their staff from coronavirus.

Some employers might take this to mean that employees who have been asked to return to work but don’t will be deemed as absent without authorisation and may even consider disciplinary action. That said, where employers want to engage and retain employees, it would be advisable to discuss and agree any returns fully with each individual taking into account their personal circumstances.

Remember, everyone has their own set of challenges

Some individuals who are classed as high risk, despite the government guidance that those in shielding categories are no longer required not to attend work, will understandably be anxious about returning to the workplace. There may also be parents whose offices have reopened but they do not yet have childcare in place. Others might simply enjoy the work life balance that agile working brings.

In these scenarios, employers could consider agile working like working from home or altering working hours. Employers do not have to accept all flexible working requests but do need to clearly state the business reasons as to why if they do reject a request. 

What are the advantages of flexible working?

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen businesses adopt flexible working practices at an extraordinary rate. By now employees will have overcome the initial barriers to working from home such as technological issues, adapting to video conferencing, logging on remotely and so on. They will have also developed a taste of work life balance. 

Anyone who has worked remotely since March will appreciate the significant amount of time gained by avoiding the daily commute to the office or being able to juggle the demands of domestic and other responsibilities around their workload from home. 

Other benefits associated with flexible working are:

  • Employees feel valued by employers who allow them flexible working because it allows them to manage what’s important to them outside of work, as a result employees are likely to be more productive at work. The CIPD Flexible Working Business Case study found that ‘9 in 10 employees consider flexible working to be a key motivator to their productivity at work (89% – even more than financial incentives (77%)’
  • Office space can be saved and cost savings made by allowing employees greater flexibility around where and when they work
  • The demand for flexible working was strong in 2019 with 87% of employees looking for work which allowed flexibility, taking into account this was recorded by Timewise pre-lockdown, the figures for this are only likely to have increased. Providing more flexibility will help you attract talent and retain your existing workforce.
  • The business will see a reduction in carbon footprint with less employees travelling, this has a positive effect on emissions both from traveling and keeping offices cool in summer and warm in winter.

Conclusion

The move towards agile working has been accelerated by the COVID crisis and now that many workplaces have shown it can work for them, it’s likely to remain a popular choice of benefit for employees. For help with discussing flexible working options for your employees or handling cases where you can’t grant that degree of flexibility, talk to Ashtons HR Consulting today. 

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