Conversations about employees working from home were once very short. In those rare instances where employees did venture to enquire about the possibility, the answer was usually an automatic ‘no’.
Times have changed. According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, there are now around 4.2 million home-based workers in the UK—roughly a trebling since 1998. Many use their home as a base, but work in different places. But around a third work only at home.
So clearly, those conversations are happening more frequently.
Not just returnees from maternity or adoption leave
The odds, then, are that you might have had such a conversation. Or might be about to have such a conversation. Employees returning from maternity or adoption leave, for instance, may make such a request.
If employers receive such a request from an employee returning from maternity or adoption leave, they are obliged to consider it. And if they decline the request, then they are obliged to decline it for one of eight statutory reasons.
But in our experience, requests for employees to work from home don’t just come from employees returning from maternity leave. For many other reasons—some associated with care provision, some not—employers are receiving requests from other employees about the possibility of working from home.
And as working from home becomes more acceptable, the pace of those requests is accelerating. Especially in the case of short periods of home working in order to resolve a period of domestic or personal difficulty—travel difficulties, perhaps, or a sick relative.
So what to do about such requests?
Here at The Legal Director, our advice is firstly not to feel under pressure to accede to the request. Whilst all employees with at least 6 months service can make a request to work flexibly (which could include working from home), employers are not obliged to agree to any such request. However, employers must ensure that they are seen to deal with the request reasonably, and in line with the statutory framework.
In any event, it’s sensible for employers to treat their staff with respect, and to give any requests due consideration. After all, if the alternative to—say—a short period of home working, undertaken for personal reasons, is to lose a valuable employee, then that short period of home working may be the better option.
Moreover, employers will want to show that they have treated staff equally—and if they have previously acceded to a request for home working from one or more employees, they will need to think carefully about their reasons for declining subsequent requests.
Otherwise, there’s a risk that an employee may feel discriminated against.
A home working policy
That’s why, here at The Legal Director, we think that it’s sensible for firms to have a home working policy.
Such a policy need not be long or complicated. But it will provide a framework for considering requests for home working, and provide a sensible and consistent basis for refusing such requests when it is appropriate to do so.
Is the request for full-time home working, or part-time, perhaps to help with a domestic difficulty? Is it even possible for the person involved to actually carry out their work from home? And to carry it out to a satisfactory standard? How will they be supervised? How will their interactions with other employees be affected? Do they have supervisory responsibilities for other employees, and if so, how will these be affected?
Then there are practical considerations to take into account. Does the employee possess suitable equipment for working from home—such as a dedicated computer? If not, who pays for such equipment? What about data security? What about suitable working facilities—or are confidential papers going to spread over the kitchen table when a neighbour calls by?
Health and safety is another concern, and before approving a home working request, an employer might want to satisfy themselves, via a home visit, that safe working is genuinely possible.
The individual dimension
Another important consideration is the individual employee concerned.
As we’ve seen, it may make sense for an employer to accede to a home working request, even in circumstances where they might have ordinarily been minded to refuse the request, if it appeared that an employee who made a valuable contribution to the business would otherwise leave.
Likewise, an employer will want to think about an employee’s employment history with the firm. Have there been attendance issues? Timekeeping issues? Performance issues? Such a track record may make an employer think twice.
Remember: the employer doesn’t have to accede to home working requests, but will want to provide consistent and robust reasons for both acceding to such requests, and turning them down.
Home working: the bottom line
Requests from employees to work from home are becoming more common. And responsible employers aren’t going to want to respond to them with a blanket ‘no’.
But equally, employers know that they need to respond to such requests consistently, so as to avoid charges of discrimination, or failure to follow the statutory procedure in dealing with the request.
Having a home working policy helps to provide that element of consistency, by providing a consistent framework for evaluating and deciding upon such requests.
So if you don’t currently have a home working policy, and you’re worried about how to evaluate and respond to any home working requests that you might receive, then The Legal Director can help.
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