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Employment Law: Covid-19 and the future of the workplace

15/07/2021

The pandemic has introduced us to lots of new things – wearing masks, social distancing, and staying at home. But one of the most significant changes for a large portion of the labour market, the impact of which is likely to be felt well beyond the end of the pandemic, has been the requirement to work from home.

The biggest real-life experiment in the world of work

Pre-Covid, many employers would have baulked at the idea of any significant element of home working, concerned that employee productivity and engagement would fall. However, in what has no doubt been the biggest real-life experiment in the world of work – this has not proved to be the case.

Both employers and employees have been innovative in the flexibility they have demonstrated in adapting to new ways of working, greatly assisted by technology – a little more than a year ago, few of us had even heard of Zoom or Teams – let alone realising that they would become part of our daily working lives.

The extent of this shift is demonstrated by an Office of National statistics report which found that almost half of UK employees were working from home during the first national lockdown.

Successive lockdowns have meant that many employees have now spent more than a year working from home, and all the signs are that significant numbers would like to continue at least an element of that.

What are the downsides to an increase in homeworking for employers and employees?

Although the positives in homeworking have been clear to see, we must also not forget that what might be a welcome move for employers and employees in one sector, is another sector’s death knell.

With plans afoot for many office workers to retain at least an element of homeworking, the footfall in our city centres will inevitably dwindle and impact upon the viability of many food and drink outlets and retail stores more generally.

Also, the increased acceptance of the ‘Zoom’ meeting, whether such meetings are hosted from home or the office, will no doubt see a reduction in business travel as employers seek to avoid the time and expense which come with face-to-face and onsite meetings.

The way we work as a result of the pandemic will therefore not only impact upon how we work but will also influence the types of jobs that will be available to do.

Will hybrid or flexible working be the new normal for employees?

In anticipation of a lifting of the work from home guidance on 19 July, employers are considering what a return to normal working will mean for them. The situation is however not as clear as it may seem for employers. Public Health England have suggested people should continue to work from home for the next four to six weeks where possible. A stance which seemed to gain the support of the government and Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who on Monday [12 July 2021] expressed the need for employees to return to their offices on a more gradual basis.

Regardless of timelines, the concept being considered by many large employers is one of ‘hybrid working’ – whereby employees spend some time in the office for the purposes of collaborating with colleagues and client meetings and work the remainder from home.

In doing so, there are a range of legal practicalities that employers will need to consider, ranging from amending employment documentation to how employees can be effectively managed and supervised remotely.

Employers will also need to be careful that they do not inadvertently trigger a two-tier workforce, resulting in inequalities between those in the office who have more face time with management and those working from home. However, this a chance for employers to take a closer look at what has and has not worked during this period of enforced remote working to come up with creative solutions that work for both businesses and their employees.

Is employment law fit-for-purpose in a post covid world?

Whichever route that employers choose to take; whether they opt for a full return of their employees to their physical office locations, a fully remote approach or a hybrid of the two, there is no doubt that existing employment law will need to evolve alongside these changes in order to maintain appropriate protections for both employers and employees.

One obvious area in need of review is the law relating to health and safety of employees, given that is predicated on the basis of work and home being separate places.

*The information set out in this article is correct at the date of publication (15 July, 2020). The effect of coronavirus on businesses is a fast-changing area and so it is important to obtain legal advice to ensure you are properly protected. Visit our Coronavirus (COVID-19) Hub for more Leading Insights.

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If you have any questions regarding the impact of the Coronavirus upon your business or are seeking up-to-date legal advice on employment matters, contact Deborah West on 01202 294 566 or email [email protected]. Alternatively, contact one of our Employment lawyers in Bournemouth.

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