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The legacy of COVID-19 on flexible working

The corona-virus pandemic has forced millions to leave the office and work from home, almost overnight. Makeshift desks have replaced the ergonomic work stations, and Zoom calls and Teams meetings have become the standard workplace interaction for many. These new reactive measures were only intended to be temporary, and yet many businesses are now taking this opportunity to make flexible working a permanent feature.

Before the pandemic, it was reported that only around 5% of the workforce worked mainly from home. This in turn may explain the  recent statistics from the Chartered Institute of Personal Development (CIPD) which confirmed that nearly half (46%) of employers didn’t have any flexible working practices and policies in place. Agile working arrangements include flexi-time, part-time working, compressed hours or job shares and of course Home working.

COVID-19 has shown us that working from home and/or outside of core hours does not always disrupt the efficiency of businesses in the way it was feared to. Many companies have survived and even thrived during the last year. COVID-19 casualties are more likely to be businesses that we know are not able to operate with staff working remotely, for example in the hospitality and retail sector or who have simply failed to harness the technology which allows for home working

Do not get stuck in the past

There are undeniably benefits of returning to the office eventually;  it’s good for workplace morale, it increases collaboration and cohesion, it allows junior staff to learn from their more experienced colleagues and ask those small niggling questions they might be too nervous of committing to email.

But what the past year has shown us, and what the latest CIPD finding supports, is that businesses are going to need to carefully consider the way they deal with flexible working in the future. Any hard-line policy of only working from the office is unlikely to go down favourably with staff. Aside from having to deal with any resulting disputes, whether internal (including Grievances) or external (Tribunal claims) this also had implications for staff recruitment and retention.

There is some research to  that those without access to flexible working are around twice as likely to be dissatisfied in their job, compared to those who do. Companies who insist on office only working therefore run a real risk of losing staff to competitors who allow a more mixed way of working.

Managers will also need to give renewed consideration to  the impact of refusing a flexible working request given that  many employees will now be able to demonstrate that working from home (for part of the time at least) does not have an detrimental impact on business performance.

Champions of change

On the back of their findings, the CIPD have called for flexible working to be a day one right. At present, UK law states that employees can only request to work flexibly after 26 weeks of employment, with a limit of one request per 12-months. The CIPD say this needs to change and have launched their Flex for 1st campaign calling for:

  • Employers to implement internal policies that allow their employees to request flexible working from day one of employment
  • Employers to stipulate that jobs can be done flexibly in job adverts, attracting more candidates who are looking for flexible roles
  • The government to make the right to request flexible working a right from day one for all employees, as well as revisiting the business reasons for rejection and the 12-month timeframe

The government have got a lot of their plates at the moment, but once this is over and furlough has finished, the legacy of what COVID-19 meant for flexible working will remain and we do not expect the workplace to ever fully return to the way it was pre March 2020.

If you would like to discuss any of the issues addressed in this article then please do contact a member of our employment team who would be happy to help.


Although correct at the time of publication, the contents of this newsletter/blog are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute, legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article. Please contact us for the latest legal position.

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