The Rise of Hybrid Working
In March 2020, many businesses were thrown into the world of remote working overnight and had to adapt quickly to an ever-changing situation in order to minimise disruption to their services. This brought a wave of new challenges to employers, particularly for organisations where working from home was not previously a possibility such as finding new ways of communicating with staff, adapting to new ways of working and keeping employees engaged and motivated during a challenging year.
Despite the challenges faced by organisations during the pandemic, employers and employees alike have seen many benefits of working from home, such as an improved work life balance, reduction in commuting costs, more time to focus on work without distraction.
With further easing of restrictions announced over the last few weeks, and as office working slowly makes its return in the coming months, many employers may find that employees have different views and preferences about how their work should continue after a significant period of homeworking. Whilst some will welcome a full return to the office when safe to do so, and others will express a preference to remain working from home full time, most employees are likely to prefer a balance of the two, a term recently coined Hybrid Working.
Hybrid working between home and the workplace, if carried out effectively, could strike the perfect balance between home and office work, attracting the focus and cost saving benefits of homeworking with the personal interaction and engagement of working with colleagues. As it is a fairly new concept for most employers, and every organisation is different, considerations will need to be made on how hybrid working could work in practice in their organisation, the practicalities of managing hybrid working and on how to deal with requests for hybrid working.
Flexible Working Requests
With hybrid working seeming to be the preferred working pattern for employees as the restrictions begin to ease, it is therefore likely that many employers will see an increase in flexible working requests, as they begin to make the transition back to office working. Whether requested informally to a manager or formally through the formal flexible working procedure it is important that the requests are given due consideration.
The concept and process for flexible working requests is already well established and set out in the statutory framework in NI and the ACAS Code of Practice in GB. Employees with at least 26 weeks’ continuous service have statutory right to request flexible working, provided they have not made another statutory request during the previous 12 months. It is worth noting that this is a right to request flexible working, not a right to be granted their request. Those with less than 26 weeks’ service, agency workers and office holders do not hold this statutory right to request however, employers can still choose to consider their requests under their flexible working procedure.
This is therefore an opportunity for employers to review their flexible working policies and procedures to include hybrid working as part of the policy and also to determine if they are fit for purpose. In a departure from pre-COVID 19 flexible working requests, it is possible that hybrid working may need to be considered team wide, so reviewing how this would work operationally for both the employer and the employees will be essential.
If employees have demonstrated that they have been able to work from home effectively during the past year, employers may find it difficult to reasonably deny requests for hybrid working, however that is not to say it is impossible. It is important to note that flexible working requests may only be refused where the employer has a clear business ground for doing so and are able to demonstrate how this business reason applies to the circumstances. Employers should ensure that the information provided in the decision is accurate and that they can substantiate any facts provided in the event they are disputed.
It will be important to consider, as with other forms of flexible working, the contractual implications of hybrid working, as formal requests made and granted through a formal flexible working request will amount to a change of terms and conditions of employment. It is therefore advisable to ensure managers are aware of this implication and we would recommend training on the policy and procedure for line managers.
As hybrid working requires the employee to work from both the workplace and from home, considerations will need to be made on the work equipment provided and if this will be shared between the workplace and home. For example, would it be more practical for an employee to be provided with a laptop/tablet rather than a desktop computer in order to more easily transport the IT equipment between the office and home and to minimise potential damage and health and safety risks in transporting the equipment. Naturally there will be financial considerations in this.
Employees working from home may also see an increase in expenditure in relation to their home electricity, heat or internet bills as a result of higher daily use during working hours normally spent in the office. Companies are permitted to pay employees a tax-free homeworking allowance of up to £6 per week or £26 per month to cover additional home working expenses, so this may also be a consideration.
Employers will also need to consider how business expenses such as mileage will be calculated for employees who are hybrid working, for example if this should be calculated from the office to the destination or from the employee’s home to the destination.
A concern that is commonly raised by managers is how can performance be managed when teams are working remotely, as employee performance may be harder to observe from a distance. Employers will therefore need to consider how they will manage performance for employees working under a hybrid working arrangement. A greater importance may be placed on setting clear goals and objectives to measure and assess the performance based on outcomes rather than observations in the workplace. To this end, regular one-to-one conversations with employees to review these objectives and to provide regular feedback may be beneficial in managing performance in the remote environment.
Employee Engagement & Wellbeing
Effective communication will be essential to a successful hybrid working model. It will therefore be crucial for employers to determine how they will keep remote staff engaged and included in the team, and how they will support their wellbeing.
It is important that those working under a hybrid working arrangement are not placed at a detriment compared to their other colleagues as a result of their working arrangements and concerted efforts are made to encourage their engagement and inclusion, particularly if other team members are permanently office based, so they are not “out of sight, out of mind”. This will also apply to opportunities for promotions etc within the business, ensuring that those working flexibly have an equal opportunity for progression to their full time or office-based comparators.
Supporting Employee Wellbeing
Lockdown has been a difficult time for all and for lots of different reasons. However there has been a certain comfort in following rules that for the most part were clear. As lockdown restrictions begin to ease, feelings of uncertainty may begin to re-emerge and adapting to these changes can present new challenges. These can manifest in feelings of anxiety, anger, low mood and fatigue to name a few. Many employee benefit products will provide employee assistance programmes and mental health support and this is a good time to explore what is available to your employees and communicate that availability. If you are not aware of what is available to you, our Employee Benefits Consultants can carry out an audit and make recommendations. Mental Health training programmes are also available for employers to help identify and support those with mental health issues.
Health & Safety
Whether the workforce is working from home either part-time or full-time, employers have a duty of care for the health and safety of their staff in both environments.
Just like in pre-COVID-19 times, employers are required to carry out risk assessments relating to known risks (this includes homeworkers). If office premises are to be re-opened, you must also carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment and communicate it with staff.
Don’t forget that in a post-COVID-19 climate further actions are required to avoid the risk of:
- Musculoskeletal injuries due to poorly set up workstations at home
- Increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 due to poorly managed office space
- Anxiety or depression arising from a change in working location/ practices, workloads or lack of communication and interaction with others
- Lack of training / lapse in refresher training
Having identified the hazards related to working within a hybrid workplace, developing communication and training materials is key, consider the following:
- General workplace induction
- COVID-19 precautions
- Fire awareness
- Emergency evacuation
- Manual handling
- Electrical awareness
- Working with display screen equipment
- Stress and mental health
- Working from home