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August 2020

Flexible Working in the Time of COVID-19

Dear <<First Name>>,

Bringing people back to work after furlough can have its challenges. Not least because many people will be nervous about being in an office or other working environment again. Managing that will need to be done sensitively. It’s likely that you’ll receive many requests for flexible working that may include the desire to continue working from home.
Below is an edited version of the CIPD’s advice on flexible working at this time. It includes your health and safety obligations to employees returning to the traditional workplace. Also, it highlights the potential people benefits of flexible working, helping you to make it a successful aspect of your organisation.
Keep safe.
Best wishes,

0118 940 3032

Flexible Working in the Time of COVID-19

Before the pandemic, only around 5% of the workforce worked from home. Now, the majority do, with far more flexible working hours to balance other responsibilities such as home schooling, childcare and supporting vulnerable relatives.

Strong evidence indicates that flexible working can support inclusion, help to reduce the gender pay gap, support sustainability initiatives, attract and retain talented individuals, increase productivity and support wellbeing.

In the Short Term
As lockdown restrictions ease, it’s important to ensure fairness and consistency in the treatment of all employees. During this interim period, consider:
  • Effective communication of key messages to all employees, wherever they are working
  • Providing managers with guidance, training and support for managing remotely
  • Encouraging regular ‘check-in’ meetings to monitor wellbeing and reduce isolation for homeworkers
  • Fair workload distribution with regular reviews of objectives
  • Regular team meetings and social spaces to maintain connections and build relationships
Addressing Employee Needs
Requests for short term flexible working could include:
  • Allowing employees temporary changes to their working pattern, e.g. for three or six months
  • A short and simple application process – provide employees with a simple form to complete and make decisions within a week or two
  • Removing usual policy requirements, such as stipulating 26 weeks’ service to make a request or allowing more than one request in a 12 month period
  • Outlining specific requests employees may make, e.g. hours reduction or flexi-time
  • An assumption that requests will be agreed wherever possible where the employee has a good reason for needing the change
Any changes should be mutually agreed, confirmed in writing and have a clear end date. Where employees are seeking a permanent flexible working arrangement (or seeking one when a temporary change has ended), your organisation’s normal policies and procedures should apply. Train your people managers on how to handle requests fairly and consistently.

Returning to the Workplace
As the risks related to COVID-19 will continue for many months, there are limitations on how many people can work in an office building to maintain social distancing. Additionally, there may be public transport restrictions or concerns about using it. Some flexible working types can support safely returning to the workplace and social distancing, including:

Homeworking. If possible, consider allowing employees to continue working from home for some or all of their working time. Or adopt a system where employees work from home and from the office on a rota basis.

Although large workloads can be undertaken from home, it’s not easy for everyone. Some people reported finding it difficult to switch off and set boundaries between work and non-work activities, often compounded by not having a suitable workspace.

For employees undertaking more long term homeworking:
  • Provide guidance on maintaining an effective work-life balance as many people work longer hours than they would in the office
  • Provide training to people managers on supporting homeworkers
  • Ensure employees take annual leave
  • Provide general wellbeing support to all employees
Staggered hours give workers discretion, within prescribed limits, in fixing their start and finish times, e.g. choosing to work 7am-3pm or 10am-6pm. Staggered shifts can ease public transport and traffic congestion at peak hours and avoids large groups arriving and leaving offices.

Compressed hours allows employees to work their normal contracted hours over a reduced number of days. For instance, working four longer days to not work on the fifth, reducing employee numbers in the office. Compressed hours can result in working long days, so ensure employees take breaks to avoid fatigue.

Adjusted shift rotations. For employees working in a rotating shift pattern where one group takes over from another, introduce a process to reduce contact between different shift teams. Ensure the same individuals undertake handovers while observing social distancing. The same teams should rotate so that they always follow the same individuals.
Phase groups starting and leaving work to reduce interaction or crowds forming in certain locations. Employees may have previously swapped shifts, but this may not be appropriate in current circumstances.

Any 5 from 7. Where feasible, opening seven days a week and asking employees to work some of their physical workplace hours on weekends can reduce the amount of people in the workplace at any time.

Contracts of Employment
Making unilateral variations to contracts of employment, even temporarily, is a breach of contract. Where a clause allows flexibility to change working patterns, be careful – changes must be reasonable and must not discriminate against any employee with a protected characteristic under the Equality Act. Seek legal advice on your organisation’s contracts of employment.

To introduce working pattern changes:
  • Communicate detailed proposals clearly to all employees, including those on furlough leave, stating how long changes are likely to last
  • Brief people managers fully on the proposals and how to respond to employee concerns
  • Include trade unions or employee groups in discussions
  • Seek feedback from employees; allow them to ask questions and make suggestions
  • Identify employees who may be particularly vulnerable; engage specifically with them either directly or by creating a group of employee representatives
Always take personal circumstances into account; some employees may be unable to change their working hours for many reasons, including family responsibilities. Be careful not to discriminate.

Following communication and feedback, set out proposals formally in writing, requesting written agreement prior to implementing any changes. Regularly review new working patterns, adapting as the situation evolves or if Government advice changes.

If you have any queries or concerns, do get in touch.

Online Employment Law Workshop – 15 October 2020

Our Autumn employment law update workshop will be held via Zoom at 11am on 15 October for an hour. If you have any burning questions on anything to do with employment law, especially during these rapidly changing times, this is the place to ask them.
You’ll be joined by other business owners, so you can share your issues and hear how others deal with similar issues. These sessions are always friendly and completely confidential.
Being online, this workshop is completely free. But you do need to register and bring your own refreshments! Register your place here.
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