Not retiring: will there be more tribunals about homeworking?

Will more employers push employees back to spending the whole week in the office or are they just outliers with most steering a hybrid course [for those who can work remotely]?

Older woman works at home on laptop


Homeworking has been much in the news in the last few years. Covid meant many people had to pivot to working from home, although many could not. Those who did it found that it was possible to continue and that, generally, productivity was not affected or was even boosted. There were some employers who embraced this wholeheartedly after the lockdowns relaxed and went fully remote, but most began operating a hybrid system with some days in the office and some remote. Hybrid working is not new, of course, but before Covid it was much less common.

Since then some employers have been pushing for a full return to the office, but these tend to be, as flexible working expert Andy Lake says, ‘outliers’. They do get a lot of the news headlines, however, particularly from some parts of the press who seem determined to lay the blame for most social ills at the foot of hybrid or remote working. It remains to be seen what the impact of different amounts of days has on issues like retention, productivity, engagement and so forth. It will depend on multiple factors, for instance, the demands of particular roles and particular employees’ needs, but mainly on how teams are managed. What Covid has taught us is that empathetic line management is crucial when negotiating all the various and continuing shifts and changes that are to come. In an era of AI, it is the richness and complexity of what makes us human that will surely come to the fore.

This week began with a focus on the outliers. An article in the Guardian reported that lawyers and HR experts are predicting a surge in employment tribunal cases as companies scale back remote working arrangements. The Guardian notes that lawyers say some employers have become emboldened after an employment tribunal earlier this year rejected the case of a senior manager who sued the City watchdog because she wanted to work at home full time. Elizabeth Wilson, a senior manager at the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), had her demand quashed by a judge, who said the regulator was within its rights to deny the request.

However, other lawyers are not so sure that particular case will make a huge difference. Charlotte Geesin from Howarths says the FCA case is extreme given Wilson was a senior manager working to work full time from home. However, she agrees that we are likely to see reference to “home working” increasing in the context of tribunals, but she says this will only be as an extension of existing flexible working rules. She adds: “It remains to be seen how things pan out, but I think the legal landscape will be supportive of hybrid working arrangements as a concept where business needs can be balanced.” She adds: “The vast majority of businesses genuinely appear to be embracing the concept of hybrid working and most employers are moving towards this…I think that most businesses recognise that hybrid working is almost a “norm” now and there are definite benefits when it comes to recruitment if employers have this approach in place.”

The hope is that the tribunals will judge things based on employee and employer need, which is as it should be. Flexible working is something many workers want, including young and old employees and everyone in between, and the reasons driving that are not likely to diminish any time soon. While we have seen big swings to remote and away from remote in the last years [and Covid conditions where everyone was isolated from everyone else are not normal remote conditions] and while remote working can be a Marmite issue for some employees, employers need to take all their employees’ needs into account and negotiate a way through that works for everyone. The main aim is to maximise individuals – and therefore organisations’ – potential.

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