Returning to Work Post-Shutdown, Part III: Potential Trends and Changes to U.K. Workplaces

Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP

In the final instalment of our series examining the return to work post-shutdown in the U.K., we look at the potential trends and longer-term changes that the COVID-19 pandemic will likely have on U.K. workplaces.

The COVID-19 pandemic and resultant shutdown in the U.K. have caused a massive shift in the way we work, with many employers sending their employees home and 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 U.K. economy, many employers have found the move to a predominantly home-working culture to be largely successful. So, now that most of us have finally mastered the art of the Zoom call, what does the future hold for the U.K. workplace 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.’ Even outside the tech sphere, which has often led the way in terms of flexible and home-working, more traditional industries such as law are also seeing a shift, with Slater & Gordon announcing that its London office will close from September 2020 and all London employees will work from home on an ongoing basis.

The lockdown demonstrated that it is possible for employers and employees to adapt quickly to home-working, and the potential benefits in transitioning to permanent home-working are significant. Primarily, employers can make considerable savings on expensive offices, particularly in locations where real estate costs are substantial, such as London. Additionally, working from home allows employers to recruit from a wider pool of talent and attract employees into the business who they otherwise would be unable to recruit due to geographical constraints. Furthermore, working from home can have multiple benefits from an employee well-being perspective, which in turn can bring benefits to employers, such as better employee retention and engagement.

When considering a permanent shift to working from home, employers will need to decide if it is right for their workforce. Employers should conduct a review of employees’ roles and how long-term home-working would affect these roles. Employers should also check whether employees’ contracts contain mobility clauses and if so, employers will likely be able to change their employees’ place of work to their home. If, however, employees’ contracts do not contain mobility clauses, a permanent shift to home-working may amount to a change in terms and conditions, which will necessitate employee consent.

Employers will also need to consider the employees themselves – for example by using a staff survey to gain a better understanding of employees’ appetites for home-working. Whilst many employees may be happy to continue working from home, there will likely be some who are unreceptive to such a move, so employers will need to consider how to address the various reactions.

Whilst there may be benefits to home-working, 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. Regular remote catch-ups are likely to be key, but arranging monthly in-person team meetings in a central location, for example, could also be beneficial. Additionally, employers should be mindful that home-working can create an ‘always on’ mentality, which can lead to burnout. They should therefore take steps to ensure that employees are not over-working.

Employers should also consider the logistics of a more permanent shift to home-working. Employers have a duty to ensure employees’ health and safety, and this duty 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. They should also consider what equipment employees need to work from home. Many will prefer to supply their employees with the necessary computer equipment so that they can control its use more easily and ensure it is of a proper, functioning standard. They should make it clear that such equipment remains the property of the employer and put restrictions on its use. They can also make contributions to employees’ bills for working from home (for example, electricity and heating), but given that many employees would be making savings of expenses such as commuting costs, may not feel it necessary to do so.

Flexible Working

In recent years, the media has often vaunted the benefits of a more flexible approach to work, especially given the technological solutions which can enable this. Whilst flexible working has increased in recent years, particularly for those with childcare responsibilities, the standard 9-to-5 office hours have prevailed for the majority. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees have had to work more flexibly, for example by shifting their hours in order to facilitate working from home alongside other responsibilities, such as supervising children who are home-schooling. Many employees have demonstrated high levels of productivity whilst working more flexibly. This opportunity to demonstrate what can be produced and achieved whilst working flexibly will likely make employers more amenable to flexible working arrangements in the future, and will likely make it harder for those 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.

Workplace Planning

The shutdown in the U.K. meant many employers had to react fast in transitioning their workforces to working from home where possible, and, where home-working was not possible, putting in place additional measures to make the workplace as safe as possible. Whilst the lockdown in the U.K. is easing, the threat of a second wave of infection remains, so employers should consider workforce planning and contingency arrangements for such an event.

Other Trends

It seems inevitable that COVID-19 will have wide-ranging impacts on all aspects of the workplace in the U.K. International businesses – which have typically necessitated a lot of international business travel – will need to review the feasibility of such travel. Many employees may be reluctant to travel for business internationally for the foreseeable future, particularly whilst the threat of a second wave of infections remains. Businesses may therefore need to implement dynamic solutions and utilise technologies in order 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.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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