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Where do we go from here?

Monday, Apr-22, 2024

Where do we go from here?

It seems as though the end to challenges on the employment front is not yet anywhere in sight. Head of Employment Law Iain Jenkins takes a look at some of the future possibilities.

Writing this before the end of furlough, it is difficult to draw any conclusions about the impact of Covid-19 on the workplace and workforce. We have already had redundancies across a number of industries and obviously there is concern that there will be more once the support of the furlough scheme ends. Most people are of the view that the economy will not have an immediate bounce-back.

Some say that the virus has just accelerated the introduction of working patterns which have been coming for some time. Previous suspicions about working from home have been put to bed when the whole office was required to do it and it seems to have worked well. Many big companies are now saying that this will be a permanent change and their need for office space will be considerably reduced. What does this mean for the big city centres and those businesses who support all those office workers?

Should a communal and collective response to a global pandemic where we have all had to roll our sleeves up and adapt suddenly become the new normal? What if employers want employees to come back into the office? This may lead to health and safety concerns around not only being at work but also getting to work, which only an effective vaccine can deal with. The Government has encouraged people to return to the workplace where possible but employers should deal carefully with concerns raised by employees.

For a number of years employees have also had the right to make a flexible working request once they have 26 weeks of continuous service. This can cover a change to the hours they work, a change to the times they are required to work or a change to the place of work (as between home and any workplace). This already means that there is scope to make a formal request for part-time working, full-time working (if currently part-time), annualised hours, compressed hours, flexi-time, home working, job sharing and many other variations. Employers may decide they want to get as many people as possible to the workplace, however if faced with such requests they may find it difficult to refuse them if things have run smoothly over the last few months.

Home working has its own complexities. The occasional afternoon or day working from home is different from a permanent arrangement. Employers are still responsible for the health and safety of their employees when providing equipment and agreeing working arrangements. Employees may want to consider what insurance provision they have when working from home. Employers will also want to consider issues around GDPR and confidentiality among others. These questions can be covered in a homeworking policy.

Some may not have relished the chance to work from home and may be itching to get back into the workplace. Working from home can be difficult where there are other people in the household and develop its own domestic stress and strains. On a more serious level there has been talk of the impact of the virus and the various lockdowns on those who are victims of domestic abuse. There is currently a Government consultation around what employers might do to give survivors of domestic abuse support in the workplace.

Virtual meetings cannot really replace day-to-day face-to-face contact with colleagues when you can approach somebody for a quick answer to a difficult question or put an arm around someone’s shoulder when needed. I cannot see the virtual Christmas party being much fun!

The virus may have changed investment plans for businesses, with more AI and production by robots. Whilst this may hedge against future pandemics and possibly increase productivity, there will be an impact on employees. Again, this has been much discussed over the last decade but perhaps these changes will accelerate and in turn lead to social changes such as a requirement for a universal income or compulsory early retirement to give the younger workforce more opportunities. Working life is probably part of our DNA but that may change over a couple of generations.

One thing is certain is that businesses and employees will adapt to whatever the new normal is. We should remain optimistic.

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