A recent ACAS survey confirmed since the coronavirus pandemic around half of employers are anticipating an increase in employee requests for flexible working from home or remotely, for all or part of the time. What are the implications of hybrid working and what do employers need to consider?
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, many jobs were considered to be office based with little flexibility. Now homeworking has become the norm rather than the exception. For some staff this has been beneficial and how they wish to continue working. With many staff still based at home, employers are reviewing and moving towards a more permanent “hybrid” arrangement with a return to the office combined with working remotely.
Here are some legal and practical implications for employers to consider when engaging hybrid workers.
What Is Hybrid Working?
Hybrid working is where staff split their time between their employer’s workplace and working remotely. Often this will mean spending time working from home.
There are benefits to flexible working including potentially reduced overhead costs for employers and sometimes relocation costs of new staff. Many employees have preferred working from home giving a better work-life balance, reducing commuting, and allowing for caring responsibilities. It may be useful for the recruitment and retention of a more diverse and engaged workforce with greater job satisfaction and fewer absences.
However, there are challenges for employers too, including how to maintain company and team culture, work collaboratively, manage and train staff, ensure inclusivity, and protecting health, safety, and mental health. Along with a host of other practical issues including data protection, cyber security, equipment for staff, and insurance.
Moving To Hybrid Working – What Should I Be Doing Now?
If you are moving to hybrid working, you need to consider with an open mind what tasks need to be done in an office or on site versus what tasks can be done just as well at home. Consider your culture and how homeworking has been through the various lockdowns.
How have you managed supervision, wellbeing, culture, and meeting the business needs? Do you know what your customers’ wants and needs are? A staff survey can be a helpful starting point to consult with staff.
Consider the following:
- Core times for employees to work together;
- How often teams should meet in person – think about loneliness;
- How teams could communicate (if not already mastered);
- Incentives for bringing staff back into the office; and
- What technology you will need to get or keep utilising more in this model.
It is important to balance the needs of your business/customers and your employees. Put together a vision on how this will work for you that all the staff and managers can get behind. This will help everyone get on board with and visualise how this will work. It also encourages engagement and ownership. Talk about the best of both worlds (home and office). Set up a team (if you can) to help with the various strands of the project.
There may also be formal flexible working applications from individual employees who wish to continue to work on a flexible basis or have individual circumstances to be taken into account, such as caring responsibilities or a disability. See our article ‘Flexible Working Requests – prepare for the flood’ for information on dealing with flexible working requests. There may be differences in how flexible working requests need to be considered following COVID-19, in that demand for hybrid working is anticipated to be high and such requests may be multiple and need to be considered at a team level.
Do You Need To Change Contracts Of Employment?
You should consider if your contracts of employment need updating to factor in hybrid working. There is a statutory requirement to provide basic information to employees and workers on their employment, including their place of work. Many employers have not been updating employees’ place of work clauses on the basis hybrid working has been informal and not a fixed arrangement. Some employers may decide that having clear contractual confirmation, including when attendance in the office is required is preferable and will be updating this.
You could include a contractual obligation to attend the office for a certain number of days a week or for certain reasons, such as client meetings, appraisals, training or disciplinaries, and restrict where an employee might move to a commutable distance. The practicalities of this will depend on your workforce.
Do You Need A New Hybrid Working Policy?
It will be beneficial for employers to have a well drafted hybrid working policy to help manage expectations, avoid misunderstandings and potential claims. Points to include in a policy could be the employer’s commitment to hybrid working, the eligibility of staff for it (some roles may be more suitable than others), what is the split between homeworking and at the office, office arrangements (such as booking a hot desk), and when working away from company premises certain practicalities such as confidentiality and data protection.
You may need to review and change other policies that you might have for homeworking, IT, data protection, and expenses to factor in hybrid working arrangements.
Can You Have A Trial Period?
If you have concerns about how the arrangement might work then include an initial trial period. It also builds in an opportunity for review, feedback, and adapting. There might be circumstances where it is no longer effective to continue with the new arrangement. Although in practice once a hybrid or home-working arrangement has begun it could be challenging to row back from that to a more conventional working arrangement.
Managing And Supervising Staff Through Hybrid Working
Hybrid working has brought new challenges for managing staff. Managers are likely to need training and support on developing skills to ensure good communication, performance management, team building, and collaboration. Along with guidance on ensuring inclusion and diversity, effective induction, and staff engagement.
Performance at work is not so easy to observe when staff are working remotely or flexibly. Managers will need to ensure regular one to one time with staff and focus more on outcomes and objectives, perhaps adjusting appraisals accordingly. At the outset of the pandemic, there were initial concerns about productivity at home, which seems to have been generally misplaced. Although, if there is a genuine performance management issue then it should be dealt with taking into account a fair process and not be put to one side, which may be a risk if contact with employees is more limited.
What About New Recruits?
Certain sectors and many employers are facing issues with recruitment and retention of new staff. Hybrid working has made the onboarding process more difficult. Employers should be ensuring an effective induction process for hybrid workers including so they are familiar with company culture and values and able to build relationships with other team members. The following can be effective strategies: start a buddy system to help the recruit adjust to their new employer, introducing or enhancing mentoring, and ensuring one to one interaction.
Employers may wish to limit homeworking during a probationary period or for junior employees, for example, requiring them to be present in the workplace for training, mentoring, and supervision reasons. This may disproportionately affect younger employees and lead to discrimination issues. However, it may be possible to objectively justify this as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate means if it corresponds with a real business need.
Fairness And Inclusivity Towards Hybrid Working Employees
It is possible certain groups with protected characteristics are more likely to be taking up and disadvantaged by hybrid working, such as women (more likely to have childcare and care responsibilities) and staff with disabilities who are better able to work from home. Employers should ensure there is even support and opportunities for training, career advancement, and reward whereby it is not advantageous to spend more time in the office. Be mindful of unintended consequences of hybrid working, for example, contact with influential managers may be limited for some employees. If there is a risk of inequality, consider how that might be mitigated.
Health, Safety And Wellbeing
Even when employees are working at home, employers are still required to comply with their common law duty of care and statutory duties to provide a safe place of work. If employers are establishing more permanent hybrid working arrangements, then it is likely you will need to review (and possibly redo) existing health and safety policies, along with previous health and safety risk assessments.
The HSE and ACAS have published guidance on homeworking during the COVID-19 pandemic that remains relevant. See here for information from the HSE on protecting home workers and here for ACAS’ advice on working from home during the coronavirus pandemic.
Hybrid working can cause increased stress to employees, including challenging healthy boundaries between work and home. This was identified in the recently published, The Right to Disconnect, from Autonomy Think Tank uncovering a hidden “epidemic” of overtime due to homeworking during COVID-19. The report lobbies for the statutory right for staff not to work outside contracted hours, subject to specific exceptions. Whether or not this becomes UK law, employers should ensure homeworking staff are taking adequate rest breaks and managers are proactively identifying if staff are experiencing difficulties.
There is also a risk of loneliness and isolation with hybrid or homeworking working. The government and ACAS have provided recent guidance on how to meet these challenges by recommending wellbeing programmes. Employers who provide mental health resources to their employees, such as workplace mental health champions, counselling, and an open environment where such issues can be discussed, are likely to reap the benefits of staff able to manage stress and better productivity.