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Lauren Harkin

Employers encouraging return to office face avalanche of flexible working requests

Employers’ efforts to encourage staff to return to the office are being met with an increase in flexible work requests, explains employment law expert Lauren Harkin.

The coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly had a huge impact on the way many of us work, with wide-scale home working in place for approximately 18 months.

A recent survey of 50 HR specialists by Royds Withy King suggests that employers’ efforts to encourage staff to return to the office are being met with an increase in flexible work requests.

The survey found that 76 percent of businesses have been focusing their efforts on encouraging staff to return to the office over the last couple of months.

The survey also found that 68 percent of businesses reported that staff did not want to return to the office full time, with 48 percent reporting an increase in flexible working requests as a result of their efforts.

The desire to see people back in the office environment is understandable. Businesses make considerable investment in their office footprints and want to see them utilised.

Yet it is has been clearly demonstrated that a working pattern that includes both office and home-based working is entirely achievable for many businesses.

Businesses face difficult decisions, particularly as the labour market heats up. Will staff vote with their feet if they are made to return to the office on a permanent basis, or will they face, as our survey suggests, an increase in flexible working requests.

The right to request flexible working is available for staff after six months service. Employees can seek to change their hours, work location or days that they work on a permanent basis. That right can be triggered no more than once each year and an employer has scope to refuse it for certain prescribed reasons.

The Government is seeking to change that, making this right available from the very first day of employment, although we are still waiting to see the detail of the proposed reforms.

Extending this right would fundamentally change the relationship between staff and their employers and would be a significant step forward.

HR professionals contributing to this survey point to clear benefits of having staff in the office, including “better collaboration and morale”, “increased awareness of what other teams are doing”, “better support and mentoring for junior staff”, and an “increased sense of belonging”.

They also point to the reluctance of staff to return full time with concerns over safety, physical space, anxiety of being surrounded by so many people, and a general lack of desire to return to an office.

In a tough employment market, businesses need to take every step possible to retain key members of staff and to attract new talent.

Businesses with flexible working patterns may well find it easier to do both, and at the same time really embed your business’ culture – something that has been difficult to achieve as a result of the pandemic.

We would encourage employers to engage with staff to explore the best options and approach for everyone rather than adopt a single blanket policy.

Lauren Harkin, is a partner in the employment law team at Royds Withy King. Royds Withy King itself successfully operates hybrid flexible working arrangements with staff encouraged to spend two days in the office each week.

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