The requirement to work from home where possible may soon be coming to an end. Whether homeworking has been working for your organisation or not, now is a critical time to assess your strategy moving forwards, and make decisions in response to the many questions you are no doubt receiving from your workforce. As HR and Health & Safety specialists, Employer Support Services Ltd, T/A Peopletime are well placed to partner with you in determining the most suitable approach for your organisation as well as helping you manage any individual scenarios you may have. Read on for more information on this topic or get in touch; please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on 057 9308720 to speak to one of our team.
The COVID-19 pandemic created a unique situation whereby almost overnight employers and employees had to implement home working arrangements for roles, teams and departments that may have previously questioned the practicality and effectiveness of doing so. While these arrangements may have been enlightening for both employers and employees as to the art of the possible, they were not made with the luxury of time. As a consequence, many were approached with a ‘whatever works’ rather than a ‘what do we need to make this work’ mentality, meaning that the current arrangements you have in place may not be the most effective or sustainable options.
Added to that, it has been polarising for many employees with some enjoying being able to achieve a better work life balance, and others finding it a lonely and isolating experience. As such, many employers are likely to be facing differences in opinion from their workforce about a desire to return to the office. Determining the right approach may be complicated with some employees desperate to come back and some keen to remain at home. Other considerations such as the needs of your operation now and moving forwards, your obligations as an employer, and how to maintain your organisational culture are also likely to influence your approach.
Below are some of the popular questions that we have been hearing on this topic; there is a lot to think about and while every organisation will be unique, there are also a lot of commonalities too. If you would like any support in navigating this tricky transitional period, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with one of our team.
Do I have to agree to requests for homeworking because employees have been doing it over the last year?
That employees have been doing it in the extraordinary circumstances of a global pandemic, and under direction from the Irish government, is in itself unlikely to be a strong enough rationale for continuing the arrangements. Employers are not obliged to make any changes to working arrangements providing there are solid business reasons for not granting requests to do so. This has not changed from pre-pandemic times, however the temporary changes forced by the pandemic may have eroded some previously considered reasons for not allowing home working. It is therefore of utmost importance to carefully evaluate any and all requests on their own merits and in the context of what has been practical, what hasn’t and what is likely to be required moving forwards.
Can I say yes to some employees and no to others?
Yes, but consider what is driving your decision; you will need to be able to objectively justify it in a manner that is fair and non-discriminatory. Considering how the operation is likely to be impacted is a good starting point for your decisions. It is also worth thinking about the demographics of those who are choosing to work from home. For example, do you have a lot of parents requesting it? There has been widespread media coverage of the impact the pandemic has had on women; that they tend to shoulder more family responsibilities than men, which has been exacerbated by the pressures of these strange times. With working from home generally providing more flexibility to manage family life, we may see more women than men requesting to remain doing so. Research indicates that over time, those able to benefit from the social interactions and visibility of being in an office are more likely to received promotions and other opportunities. You may inadvertently be creating an environment whereby indirect discrimination could occur; a homeworking female portion of your workforce being treated less favourably than the office-based males.
What does Health & Safety look like for homeworkers?
Taking all reasonable measures to ensure the safety and wellbeing of your employees continues to apply whether those employees are based on a work premises or at home. While clearing emails from the kitchen table or attending Zoom meetings on the sofa might be ok every now and then, there are likely to be physical ramifications of working in these postures over a prolonged period of time. Provision of appropriate equipment and/or desk assessments would help ensure that you meet your obligations regarding physical health. Don’t forget that safety and wellbeing also extend to mental health and you need to factor this into your strategy for managing any homeworking arrangements.
Could homeworking be cheaper in the long-term?
Potentially, particularly if you have had expensive premises to rent or maintain that you may be able to close or relocate. However, it is always worth conducting a cost benefit analysis first. Beyond any additional tools and equipment needed (see detail relating to Health & Safety above), the additional costs of supporting a remote workforce may not be immediately obvious but may make your approach financially inviable. For example, if an employee’s normal place of work becomes their home on a permanent basis, there are likely to be implications for your insurance, tax and in how the employee would calculate expenses. Revenue set various parameters around what constitutes a normal place of work for tax purposes so make sure you’re clear what these are before confirming any arrangements.
How can we make sure we’re still sharing and learning from each other?
This is a tricky one to manage. While you may be able to schedule a virtual brainstorming session or complete formal sessions of learning online, there are few things that can replicate the informal learning that happens when people are physically together. Consider a normal day in the office; you may bump into someone from outside your team and exchange a few words about what you’re working on; you may overhear something interesting about another project or the approach someone is taking; you probably ask a casual question of someone you’re sitting near which may lead to a deeper discussion of a problem you or they are currently facing. It is these unplanned interactions in your day that can sometimes add the most value or lead to you learning something new. If you are considering continuing with homeworking to any degree, make sure to think carefully about how you might be able to replicate an environment like this to help maintain your organisation’s culture.
 BBC Worklife (May 2021) Are men-dominated offices the future of the workplace? https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210503-are-men-dominated-offices-the-future-of-the-workplace