Danielle Ayres: The changing face of flexible working

The number of people working flexibly has increased drastically since the pandemic; however, as we move on from that, it seems more employers are asking staff to return to workplaces on a regular basis.

Many employees have become reliant on not having to travel into work, or deal with the costs associated with it. As the cost-of-living crisis rages on, many are struggling to account for the return of this additional cost.

Businesses asking staff to return to the workplace need to adopt a proactive approach to help ensure employees feel comfortable doing so, and also be open to the fact that in today’s climate, cost to the employee will play a big part.

All employees who have 26 weeks’ continuous service have a legal right to request flexible working. Employers should consider those requests in a reasonable manner, to see whether they can be accommodated. Of course, employers can refuse a flexible working request. There are eight statutory reasons which they can use – they need to be mindful of whether allowing the request would adversely affect the business.

Effective communication is also central to establishing a flexible working approach. Employers should speak to staff and finding out what works for them, asking whether they would prefer to work from home or from the office, and being open to conversations about money worries.

If a flexible working request is granted, employers should amend the employee’s contract of employment to specify the hours, days or ways of working that have been agreed, such as working from home or in the office.

Many employers also chose to have flexible working policies in place too. These should clearly be communicated to employees, which will allow any questions or concerns to be addressed, which should hopefully help to avoid any misunderstanding or miscommunications.

Mental health is also a major consideration. Team members with financial concerns or general anxieties around coming back into the workplace after so long need to know their employer can provide them with any support they might need. Businesses should, in those cases, consider employee assistance programmes (EAPs), or signposting employees to resources where they can discuss any concerns in more detail. Investing in company-funded counselling, alongside training and assistance in money management, budgeting, saving, or debt support could also be considered.

Employers can also look at ways of improving their benefits packages, such as offering travel cards, parking contributions to help reduce costs when visiting the office, as well as gym memberships and discounts on restaurants and days out, to encourage staff to enjoy their time away from work and manage a healthy lifestyle.

Looking further afield, with financial concerns more prevalent than ever due to the rising cost of living, employers should ensure that their pay bands align with market standards. The living wage should be paid in every case. It is important that pay reviews are done on time, and businesses should ensure that pay rises, overtime and bonuses are applied and paid on due dates and in the correct amounts.

Where businesses have the means to do so, they could also offer salary sacrifice schemes, where an employee pays each month for a specific benefit, including company cars, additional pension payments or a cycle-to-work scheme. Employers must be responsive to wider issues which may be impacting their employees as we move into this new iteration of flexible working, made all the more complex by the financial pressures of the cost-of-living crisis.

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Being open and proactive to these challenges will help ensure businesses act in the best interests of their teams, protecting their employees’ wellbeing and helping promote an open and inclusive workplace.

Danielle Ayres is a partner in employment law at Primas Law