The return to the workplace in the UK

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As restrictions lift, employers and employees are turning their minds to returning to the post-pandemic workplace.

At our recent Return to the Workplace webinar, we asked attendees about their plans for returning to the workplace. 63% were planning to allow employees to split their working time between home and the office. A further 8% of employers were looking at allowing employees to work from anywhere in the UK.

It is unlikely that there will be a one-size-fits-all approach and understanding the views of the workforce will be a key step in implementing any agile or hybrid working policy. Employers should carry out employee surveys/listening and consultation exercises to gauge what approach will best suit the majority of their people.

Details of the practical arrangements are most likely to be set out in a new agile or hybrid working policy, rather than in employment contracts. However, at the outset employers should consider their employees' contractual terms, particularly relating to place of work and mobility. Employers should be clear on what they are expecting from their employees. They should consider whether they will require employees to come in for a set number of days, specific days of the week, or whether they will give employees autonomy to choose where they work. Practical considerations include availability of desks and avoiding having deserted offices on Mondays and Fridays. Many organisations are making it clear that their agile or hybrid working policies are being rolled out on a pilot basis, recognising that this initial phase is one of adaption and experimentation and also that employees' attitudes to returning to the office are still developing. Many employees' attitudes to returning to the office are vastly different from those in summer 2020 and they may still shift over time.

Proposed changes may also encompass flexibility with regard to the hours that employees work, or the number of days they might work. Some employers are questioning the need for their employees to be in the office from 9 to 5, allowing employees to vary their core hours to avoid rush hour or facilitate childcare arrangements. For some employees, the proposed new way of working may not go far enough. Any employee with 26 weeks' service is entitled to make a flexible working request which the employer has a duty to consider, but may refuse if this refusal is based on one of eight statutory reasons. Employers should be aware that it is likely to be more difficult to refuse such requests post pandemic when the workforce has already demonstrated that they can work efficiently from home.

The next few months will be a time of experimentation and learning for staff at all levels. To ensure a successful transition to a post-pandemic workplace, employers should be open to discussion with employees and ready to adapt according to their feedback. It will also be important for senior employees to set an example, showing that working from home will not disadvantage employees, but that the hybrid workplace can still be a place for collaboration and team cohesion.

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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