Are We Finally Back To Normal? But Does This Mean Back To The Office Five Days A Week?

Issue 78

Paul Johnstone is a Partner at specialist employment law firm, Collingwood Legal. Paul considers factors relating to returning to the office full-time and hybrid methods of flexible working.

COVID-19 has without a doubt caused disruption and changed the way we go about our lives, but perhaps most notably in the working patterns of UK workers. Before the pandemic, home working was slowly becoming more common. COVID-19 has rapidly accelerated this transition. In 2019 only 4.7% of workers worked from home. This increased tenfold, with the Office for National Statistics reporting in April 2020, 46.6% of workers worked from home or did some work at home, with 86% of them doing so as a result of the pandemic.

This taste of home working for some has allowed greater flexibility with work and personal commitments. For many, they want to see home working remain in some form or another and for others, the return to the office has been a welcome relief. So, the question that is on many employers and employees’ minds is, “what do we do next?” “Do the changes from the 24th February 2022 mean we all have to be back in the office full-time again?” What will work for me and my organisation?

Today, most people would prefer a hybrid working model, with 85% of adults currently homeworking wanting a mix of home and office working going forward. It is likely that there will be no “back to normal,” in the sense of a traditional mandatory 9-5 Monday to Friday office based working week as the concept of what is “normal” has now evolved to take into account the fact that many individuals and organisations have learned that home-based working (for some types of job) can be a very efficient, effective and profitable way of working.

According to an ONS report, when workers were asked about homeworking, individuals stated that work-life balance was the greatest positive that came out of this but there were greater challenges when it came to collaboration. Will the workplace be safe?

If you are going back to the office whether full time or a few days a week/month, employers still have a statutory duty to ensure the health and safety of all workers, this includes ensuring the workplace is a COVID-secure environment and a risk-free place for individuals to attend. With the COVID restrictions now completely eased across England and the legal requirement to self-isolate where you test positive removed, it will be a matter for each organisation to assess the health risks COVID still presents to their workforce and their business and to take reasonable, appropriate and necessary steps to safeguard the health of its workers, especially the clinically vulnerable.

As a matter of general practice, employers need to conduct regular and thorough health and safety risk assessments, this should continue to involve ensuring you effectively manage the risk of COVID-19 in the workplace. The Government has provided guidance and advice on what practices to adopt to try to mitigate these risks including, social distancing between workers, frequent cleaning of workspaces, greater ventilation and air conditioning, provision of any necessary PPE and providing lateral flow tests. With the Government now adopting a less restrictive approach to enforcement of mandatory requirements, employers must make their own judgements on how best to manage COVID risks in order to determine what arrangements are needed for their business and their workforce to ensure a safe working environment in whatever individual circumstances are applicable on a case by case basis.

The fact that Government guidance on specific obligations relating to COVID-19 are now being eased does not mean that the general law on Health and Safety is somehow undermined: it is not, and the general principles requiring an employer to take reasonable steps to ensure that each workplace is a safe working environment (and each individual being responsible for ensuring the health and safety of themselves and others) will always be relevant factors in demonstrating compliance with statutory and contractual obligations in this regard.

From a commercial point of view the availability of hybrid, flexible working is now very much a reality: the option of work-life balance incorporating a mix of home-working and office-based working and a significant reduction in daily commuting is likely to be a very high priority on the wish list of any potential new recruits.

Employers now have a lot of variable factors to consider as to what will now constitute the new “normal” from an operational perspective. Factors such as the recruitment and retention of skilled, talented and experienced people as well as the potential for increased profitability linked to the possibility of a reduction of significant financial overheads if there is a reduced need for expensive inner city office space are all now part of the new normal for many employers. It is unlikely that many organisations will be able to maintain an inflexible approach insisting on a traditional 9-5 office based working week without limiting their attractiveness to the pool of talent which now has many more flexible working options than the pre-COVID business world had to offer.

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