Most commentators seem to agree that remote working in some form or other introduced as a result of the pandemic is here to stay. A wide range of research confirms that most workers want to continue to work from home, some all the time but most it seems would prefer a balance where they are in the office for some of the week and at home for the rest. This is so called “hybrid working” or “blended working”.
The hybrid working model does have benefits for both employer and employee but can also bring frustrations and disadvantages. Hybrid working demands that employers trust their employees and that goes hand in hand with a change in managerial attitude and a redefinition of the measurement of performance. Indeed, contrary to many employers’ initial fears, remote or home working has in many cases resulted in increased productivity. Employees are judged on results and trusted to achieve their objectives.
However, it’s equally true that hybrid working arrangements may not be for everyone. Some people thrive in an office. Some need structure or a more social environment. Some industries just aren’t suited to hybrid working. There’s also a risk that hybrid teams will lose the cohesion and camaraderie that comes with face-to-face working.
Despite these potential downsides, surveys consistently show up to 77% of those asked were in favour of making some form of remote working a greater part of normal business life. However, hybrid working means different things for different organisations and careful thought and planning needs to be in place for these new ways of working to be accepted by the employees and to be effective.
Hybrid Working Arrangements Are Here to Stay
It’s now generally accepted that some form of flexible working that permits employees to split their working week between the office and another venue, usually their home, will have advantages for both the employee and the employer. For the employee, better work–life balance, greater ability to focus with fewer distractions, more time for family and friends, saved commuting time and costs are some of the more obvious advantages of a hybrid work regime.
Equally hybrid working means organisations and firms can reduce estate and facilities costs (although investment in IT may need to be increased) whilst retaining or even increasing productivity and retaining talent (if you don’t offer the hybrid working arrangements your employees seek, your competitors will).
The Importance of Having a Policy
A clear policy setting out when attendance in the office is required avoids the presumption that the homeworking arrangements adopted during the pandemic will be continued indefinitely. If you do simply allow permanent homeworking to continue this could give rise to an implied contractual right to permanent homeworking through custom and practice.
Key Elements of the Policy
Some of the key issues to include in a hybrid working policy include the question of eligibility – is the policy going to be applicable to all staff or is it is only suited to certain roles. If it will apply only to some roles, it should clearly set out the reasons why some are not eligible. The policy should also specify what the business’ expectations are in terms of the split between office and other locations.
For example, are employees expected to split their time 50/50 or attend on a set number of days between the office and other location? The policy should also consider if there are any specific circumstances, such as team or client meetings, where employees will be expected to attend the office and whether these will be on set days.
Clarifying what counts as a remote location is also important. Is it just the employee’s home or are other venues permitted? Will your employee need to inform a manager if they are working from a location which is not their home and how should they ensure that location is secure to work from bearing in mind data protection obligations? No matter what the location, the business’ data protection and computer security policy for remote working should be an integral part of the policy.
There are significant legal and logistical issues with allowing employees to work from abroad for weeks at a time (e.g. immigration, tax, intellectual property, and data protection) which need to be carefully considered. A blanket approach of declining requests for extended working from abroad is certainly the easiest solution, however, this approach could unfairly impact vulnerable individuals and even give rise to indirect discrimination claims. Any limits on where the employee can work should clearly be set out in the policy whilst retaining the flexibility to consider any request on its merits.
Don’t Forget the Office
Your policy should also include what the business expects when employees are working from the office. For example, do they need to work set hours, or can hours be flexible? Are there any ongoing safe-working measures such as a desk booking system that need to be followed? Clarify what happens about expenses for travel to the office and specify what technology or equipment will be provided and whether you will require access to carry out maintenance checks on that equipment.
Other HR Issues to Cover
Ideally, your policy should detail health safety procedures and policies for employees whilst working from home, including risk assessments. It should also set out how sickness absence should be reported. The hybrid working policy should clarify what other types of flexible working options are available to employees, who will still retain the right to make a formal flexible working request. And whilst many employers are choosing not to update place of work clauses in contracts of employment on the basis that the approach to hybrid working is a flexible, informal one, some may decide to set clear contractual expectations, which will require change and agreement. Reviewing any benefit packages that may be inappropriate in a hybrid working environment is also a good idea – for example, would gym membership close to the office still be worthwhile?
Implementing the Policy
Once you’ve drafted your policy it will have to be implemented. There is no set procedure for this, but you would be well advised to consider the following steps:
Consult: seek feedback from employees, employee representatives or trade unions and address any concerns they may have before implementing the policy.
Support: offer training and guidance to help managers, who will face many new challenges, develop the skills needed to manage teams that are working both remotely and in the office.
Communicate: any business that adopts hybrid working will have to change how it communicates with staff, perhaps making team meetings by Zoom or MS Teams the norm and only conducting face-to-face meetings when appropriate.
Hybrid working, established long term, could very well make even greater demands of managers and organisations than the urgent shift to total remote or home working required at the height of the Covid pandemic. Flexible work policies will also give rise to a growing need for co-working or shared workspaces and hot desking office models.
Long term hybrid working is an option that has a proven positive impact on employee productivity, reduced real estate costs and the environment, however, setting out expectations in advance through a carefully drafted policy will help to ensure that those benefits are realised.