Two recent surveys suggest that a majority of UK employees favour continuing with some remote working after lockdown. So, what rights do employees currently have to work flexibly and could a right to work from home be introduced?

Making a flexible working request

In the UK, there is no right to work flexibly. However, since 30 June 2014 all employees with 26 weeks' continuous service have had a right to request to work flexibly. Flexible working is any working pattern or arrangement that deviates from what was agreed with the employee when their employment started, including remote working. 

A flexible working request can be made once every 12 months and must be made in writing, setting out how the changes will affect the business. There is no obligation on an employer to agree to a request, just to consider it reasonably and make a decision within three months. Any refusal must be for one or more of the eight statutory reasons including, for example, a detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand; or inability to reorganise work among existing staff. 

If a flexible working request is refused an employee could potentially bring a tribunal claim based on a failure to meet the statutory requirements, or the fact that the decision was because of a protected characteristic.

Homeworking during the coronavirus pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has required those who can work from home to do so until it is deemed safe for workplaces to reopen and employees to return. This has already caused significant change in working culture across many industries.

How do employees view homeworking?

Two recent surveys suggest that a majority of UK employees favour a mix of office-based and remote working after lockdown:

  • A survey conducted by childcare provider Bright Horizons found that, out of 1,500 working parents, 55% want a mix of office-based and homeworking (with no more than three days a week in the office) and 15% want to work remotely on a permanent basis after lockdown. 
  • In another survey of 1,000 UK employees by HR solutions provider the Adecco Group UK and Ireland, 77% were in favour of a hybrid of office work and remote working.

Potential benefits of homeworking for employees include avoiding time-consuming commutes; spending less money on travel and food; and seeing their family and friends more. Although there are some potential downsides to working from home - including employees feeling isolated; unsuitable working conditions; and difficulty separating work and home life - it's clear that working from home during the pandemic has certainly been a success for some. This could well lead to a shift in working culture with employees wanting to continue working from home, at least for part of the week.

What do employers think of homeworking?

Employers may also be seeing that their businesses can run effectively with their employees based from home. Long term the benefits might include reduced costs if office space can be minimised; attracting prospective employees looking for flexibility; and being better for the environment as there will be reduced commuting. Some employers may have concerns about a potential loss in productivity and confidentiality / data breaches. Despite this, the recent time spent working from home is likely to have demonstrated to some that working from home is not only possible, but that it can be beneficial.

A right to work from home?

During the election campaign a commitment was made to encourage flexible working and consult on making it an employer's default position. It has also been reported that the government is considering introducing a right to work from home.

It remains to be seen whether the UK's existing flexible working legislation will be amended. An absolute right to work from home is perhaps unlikely as there would need to be some flexibility for employers. Other options include restricting employers' grounds for refusing flexible working requests; introducing a higher sanction for failing to follow a fair flexible working request procedure; or increasing the number of requests that can be made by an employee in a year from one.

Workbox by Brodies

More information is available on Workbox, our online HR and employment law site. We have made all of our Coronavirus content, including the page on homeworking during the pandemic, free to view regardless of whether you are a current Workbox user and you can access it here

If you have any queries about flexible working, please get in touch with your usual Brodies contact.