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Government guidance seems to give a lot of power – and responsibility – to employers, who are, of course, under a lot of stress in the current times. Could legislation on remote working help restore some of the balance or will it reinforce a two-tier system between those who can and can’t work from home?
Twitter has told its employees that they can work from home ‘for ever’. “The past few months have proven we can make that work. So if our employees are in a role and situation that enables them to work from home and they want to continue to do so forever, we will make that happen,” it states in its message to employees.
There has been a lot of discussion of late about whether remote working during the pandemic will change the way we work and encourage more use of remote working. Certainly in the near future many more people will continue to work from home and the experience for those going to a workplace will be not quite the experience it used to be, with people having to stay apart, eat apart, sit back to back and avoid face to face meetings. That’s not to mention concerns about how they get to work and logistics, such as childcare. Staying at home is likely to be a more sociable, relaxed experience for many, depending on their home situation.
But a lot of people might be fairly keen to get back to the workplace eventually. If you aren’t one of them, there could be legislation that would help to cement your right to work from home.
The Telegraph reported on Monday that a source in the UK government is considering enshrining a right to work from home in law as part of a suite of options to ease the lockdown. Of course there is already a right to request flexible working, but uptake is still low. Our latest annual survey, launched before lockdown, shows just 9% of working mums work remotely. Clearly the current situation has shown that many more can work remotely and that, as a recent PwC survey shows, they can be more productive as a result – even if we are not in regular homeworking territory, given childcare/schooling strains on many workers.
University of Kent researcher Heejung Chung says that “if the government could provide a more solid legal basis in which workers can safely request to work from home without the fear of negative career outcomes, this could be a huge move to help change the organisational culture to ensure that flexible working can support workers in these extraordinary times”. She adds that, aside from removing stigma around remote working, it could help address geographical inequality as employers would be able to hire people from a wider area.
While just having a law in place would be a step forward, the reasons for turning down remote working would have to be stronger than the current flexible working legislation stipulations which make it all too easy to turn down a request. And what about employees who can’t work from home?
While employers are clearly under a huge amount of pressure at the moment, there is a clear sense that current guidance on issues such as furlough puts too much power in the hands of employers. If, for example, an employee has no available childcare and asks to be furloughed and their employer refuses – and we hear this all too often – there is not much they can do except take unpaid leave. There has to be a way to balance employer and employee concerns so that there is a more level playing field. If not, we will see many women, because it is likely to be women who are hardest hit by the childcare issue, losing their jobs simply because they are parents.