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    Coronavirus and homeworking


    Head of Employment Helen Crossland discusses the effect that the coronavirus could have on future flexible working requests.

    On 16 March 2020, PM Boris Johnson declared that everyone should work from home, where possible, to help contain the spread of coronavirus. While people will have differing views as to whether or not such a step was necessary at that time, it is an issue that is likely to affect a significant part of the workforce.

    Certain jobs cannot be done from home due to the nature of the role, however, anyone in a desk-based job will most likely have to adjust to homeworking. With the reliability and variety of technology, the ability to work from home has been possible for most desk-based jobs for some time.

    Prior to this crisis, some employers were already fully embracing agile working by supplying employees with the necessary equipment to work from home as manageable, often for a certain number of days a week, whilst certain roles are designated as homeworking roles. Those businesses may be better suited to deal with this current crisis.

    Meanwhile, those businesses that have been less ready to go down this route, but whose employees can perform or all or part of their roles at home may face teething problems that hopefully will be overcome as individuals get used to their new arrangements. It may be that, when normal life resumes, businesses and employees alike realise that agile working can work. At the minimum, it will enable employers to identify the necessary adjustments that would need to be made before they can consider rolling it out more widely.  

    While we are all set to enjoy, or endure, an enforced and prolonged period of homeworking, on the other side of this, we may see a rise in employees who have become accustomed to their new set up applying to make it a permanent part of their routine.

    Any employee who has 26 weeks’ continuous employment has a statutory right to request flexible working. Eligible employees can request to work fewer or more hours or days, work the same hours but compressed into less days, vary start or leave times, or work from home some or all of the time. Employers are obliged to give all requests meaningful consideration and process applications, including any appeal, within 3 months of receipt. Unless a request can be readily granted, a formal meeting is recommended to discuss the application; the options then being to accept or refuse the request, or to agree to a compromise including potentially granting a trial period. Any rejections must be based on one or more of the eight prescribed business reasons:

    1.            The burden of additional costs.

    2.            Detrimental effect on the ability to meet customer demand.

    3.            Inability to reorganise work amongst existing staff.

    4.            Inability to recruit additional staff.

    5.            Detrimental impact on quality.

    6.            Detrimental impact on performance.

    7.            Insufficiency of work during the periods the employee proposes to work.

    8.            Planned structural changes.

    If the request is rejected, unless the employee can show the decision was discriminatory or otherwise unlawful, the employee generally has no choice but to accept the decision and cannot make another request for a further twelve months.

    Employers may need to be more wary, when we emerge on the other side, about declining requests. Especially where the employee has shown they can work ably from home for a sustained period.

    Similarly, employers who, prior to the coronavirus crisis, had been less encouraging of homeworking may come to draw a fresh outlook on it. If during this period, employees can continue to perform their duties and overheads can be reduced as a result, it may go some-way in helping rally businesses through the tough economic times ahead.  

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