With the easing of COVID restrictions in many parts of the world, employees may expect a gradual return to the workplace.
Some, like Rishi Sunak, believe that workers who don’t may lose vital job experience and the opportunity to learn from more senior staff and build networks. In a recent interview with LinkedIn, he stated that it is “really important” for young people in particular to return to their workplaces in person.
Not everyone can and will want to return, full time, to the office. Many businesses have embraced the benefits of permanent post-COVID home working arrangements. The ‘hybrid workplace’ that allows employees to work 2 or 3 days a week from home, is emerging as the favoured model for the ‘new normal.’
The nature and culture of each business will dictate how well hybrid working will work in practice. Ensuring that your business implements its home working policy fairly and pragmatically will be key to avoiding any unintended consequences.
Is hybrid working being widely adopted?
Much has been written about the benefits of working from home, for both employers and employees. The global home working experiment ushered in by the pandemic has shown that there can be real advantages for businesses. Research has shown the benefits include improved productivity, access to global talent, improved employee retention and lower operating costs. Home working can even help bolster a company’s green credentials, as staff cut down on commuting.
The challenges of migrating permanently to a hybrid workplace will depend on the nature of the business. As even the tech giants have recently discovered, implementing a “new normal” policy can backfire.
Apple stirred something of a revolt when its employees were ordered to return to the office three days a week.
Google has been more accommodating to employees wishing to work remotely. Controversially, however, the company is planning to cut the pay of those choosing to work from home—depending on where they live.
It is too early to estimate the adoption rate of hybrid working the world over. In the UK, for example, online recruitment sites serve as a useful statistical proxy, with the current composition of job ads suggesting that 1 in 20 vacancies require or allow for ‘dynamic’ or ‘hybrid’ working.
How to address the challenges of the hybrid workplace
Over time, the benefits will diminish if home workers feel disconnected, unsupported and out of the loop. If an employee feels that their efforts are going unnoticed and their prospects of career progression are compromised, their productivity will fall and the worker will seek alternative employment.
Employers would be wise to take the initiative and do all they can to establish a fair and inclusive working environment, for both in-office staff and home workers.
There is much to consider, and the situation will evolve. At this early stage, employers should try to remain flexible and consult with staff to find the fairest and most effective structure. If home working employees are not given equal opportunities or are ‘shut out’ from the day-to-day life of the company, discrimination and even constructive dismissal claims could follow.
Unintentional discrimination is a real risk. Prior to the lockdowns, the Office of National Statistics established that home workers:
- Were less than half as likely to be promoted
- Were 38% less likely to receive a bonus
- Worked nearly twice as much unpaid overtime as their office-based counterparts
As things return to normal, the factors that led to unintentional discrimination will also return if not identified and addressed.
Drafting a detailed home working policy is a critical step for employers. The policy should cover health and safety, management and supervision, and data protection, security and confidentiality.
Adopting a consultative approach by seeking input from employees or trade union representatives, can help establish a sense of fairness and buy-in to the policy.
Organizations may find that some roles are compatible with home working, where other roles are not. With some positions, the viability of home working may be less clear. Employers should identify within the policy the qualifying criteria for whether a role can be done just as well remotely. These criteria should be listed, with reasoning, within the policy.
Thought should be given to how remote workers and office-based staff will be managed consistently, fairly, and receive the same opportunities for training, development and promotion.
The home working environment
Employers will need to consider a raft of practical and legal issues as they reconfigure their workforce to permanent hybrid working.
The Management of Health and Safety Regulations 1999 mean that employers are responsible for the health and safety of home working staff. A risk assessment of a homeworker’s working environment must be carried out in order to identify and manage risks.
HR managers can provide the employee with a detailed self-assessment questionnaire. It is a good idea for an HR manager to be on hand to assist the employee over the phone or by video conference. Video would be preferable as the HR Manager can then reasonably claim to have seen the workspace first hand.
Chris Salmon, Director of Quittance said, “Risk assessments are a requirement for most employers’ liability insurance policies. Although insurers are bound to pay the compensation of an injured employee, an insurer may seek to recover their costs from policyholders if appropriate risk assessments were not carried out. It would also be advisable for businesses to contact their insurers to confirm the policy terms of cover for home working.”
It is unlawful to discriminate against employees who have a physical or mental disability. As such, employers must also make reasonable adjustments to employees’ working environment, including their home working environment, where necessary.
Not everyone has a suitable distraction-free work space at home. Although employers cannot be expected to install an office pod in every employee's garden, reasonable steps should be taken to support workers without a conventional home office. To make remote working a fairer, more viable option for more staff, the company could:
- Provide tech support and equipment, such as a longer-range router, to help workers reconfigure their workspace.
- Provide laptop rests, wrist supports and other ergonomic solutions to better manage at-risk workers’ occupational health.
- Offer more flexible hours if disruptions at home make conventional hours difficult (like loud children).
- Provide HR resources to reduce any stress and anxiety an worker may feel about their home setup.
Working hours and expectations
Employees have a right to a break of at least 20 minutes a day, 11 hours rest between working days and 1 day off a week. If the employees work life starts to bleed into their personal time, this critical partitioning of downtime could suffer.
There should be a clear working hours policy, setting out when an employee will work and be contactable. Line managers, colleagues and clients must know when the employee will be available. Establishing a policy for the use of shared calendars, out-of-office email notifications and voicemail will help.
It should also be clear to employees on which days (or under what circumstances) they will be required to attend the offices.
Home workers can become more sedentary, missing out on walks to the station or lunchtime strolls with colleagues. The policy should actively encourage breaks, and underscore the importance of exercise.
Management, supervision, and support
Thought should be given to how homeworkers can be managed remotely. It will be harder to build mutual trust and communicate effectively. Getting new starters up to speed can be a particular challenge.
Employer’s cannot assume that good quality communication will just happen. Regular and personalized communication between management and remote employees is essential.
Video conferencing software like Teams and Zoom can facilitate meetings between remote and in office workers. However if a culture of more impromptu meetings exists at the office, home workers could easily be forgotten.
Company policy should include guidance on how meetings will operate. If one or more attendees is working remotely, some firms have gone as far as asking all participants to attend the meeting virtually.
Communication between staff and management is a two-way process, and employers may inadvertently rely on informal office chats to identify issues and secure buy-in for changes. Without this backchannel, home workers can be left surprised by changes, feeling they are at the mercy of top-down diktats.
On a more basic level, remote employees should also be provided with the contact details of someone to call in the event of an HR issue or an emergency.
Training, development, and progression
Homeworkers are at risk of being ‘out of sight’ and ‘out of mind.’ Remote staff may be:
- Less proximate to business leaders,
- Less aware of what is going on in an organization,
- Less likely to have formed bonds with colleagues, an
- Less likely to have been given key assignments.
Setting clear productivity and performance targets is key. When assessing candidates for promotion, it will be easier to avoid overlooking high-performing homeworkers if productivity is being effectively measured.
Technology will be key to tackling these issues. Cloud based software can harmonize systems for home and office workers.
Such systems can facilitate performance tracking and monitoring. Some tools allow for tracking search activity, applications used, social media, chat and email. Some options even include real-time screen monitoring.
Employers will need to tread carefully here. Employees will, perhaps rightly, feel that there is a fine line between reasonable performance monitoring and intrusive micromanagement.
Setting out what will be monitored and giving clear reasons for such a policy will stop ‘big brother’ narratives from emerging. Employers shouldn’t use technology just because they can, and the level of monitoring should reflect the practical needs of the business. There’s no point in installing real-time screen monitoring if managers never have the time to use it.
If remote employees miss out on structured or ‘osmosed’ training from more experienced staff, they will be disadvantaged. Thought should be given to how training and development is handled for remote employees. Online training courses can help, but in-person training may also be necessary.
Employee costs and expenses
Home workers will inevitably incur certain home office costs such as heating and lighting. The policy can set out what contributions the employer is willing to make and what can be claimed for. It may be helpful to explain the tax implications of these contributions.
You can also list what you will provide the employee with to do their job, such as stationery and other office equipment.
A positive contribution to equality in the workplace
An evolving, flexible and consultative home working policy will help to maximize the many benefits that home working can provide, and mitigate the risk of a toxic, two-tier workplace.
Home working offers opportunities to positively address equality in the workplace. There are an estimated 1.9 million people in the US with disabilities who are actively looking for work. Mobile working is an opportunity for people who are unable to commute and for businesses to access this pool of talent.
Working parents, many of whom simply cannot juggle the 9-to-5 with school runs, could be a great fit for home working. Statistically, women are more likely to stop work due to family commitments. The opportunity to work from home could help close the gender gap.
As we transition into the post-COVID world, now is the ideal opportunity for companies to build on the strategies developed during lockdown, and learn from any missteps and mistakes. Developing a best-in-class hybrid working policy will benefit all employees, and will help to ensure the company is well-placed to thrive in a landscape of accelerating technological and social change.
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