It has been widely reported that the number of fully remote roles available has dropped significantly; this is a continuing trend month on month, making the job market more competitive for those seeking such roles.
Initially, many employers have taken a more relaxed approach to the return to the office, but that seems to be changing, making fully remote roles increasingly rare. Many employers cite concerns about the productivity of staff working remotely, with high profile bosses such as Elon Musk and Alan Sugar making publicly sceptical statements about home workers.
There are also concerns about learning and development, particularly at the junior end, being impacted by home working, with a lack of exposure to more senior colleagues. It has been acknowledged by many that the long-term impact of remote working has adversely impacted on the ability to build and maintain collegiate environments, and the perceived benefits this can bring to an organisation.
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Where fully remote working is not officially available, and employees have been complaisant about adhering to policies on how much time they spend in the office, employers have started to respond with more stringent policies. For example, Apple has made Tuesdays and Thursdays compulsory office days for all staff, with workers required to come into the office on a third day dictated by their team.
While employers had largely embraced a consensual approach towards compliance, there is a heightened interest in enforcing such policies, with employers threatening disciplinary action against staff who fail to follow them.
However, as well as ensuring that expectations are clear to employees, and following a fair procedure when taking any disciplinary action, employers should keep in mind that the pandemic has accelerated a cultural shift towards a better work-life balance, and the benefits this can have on family life and wellbeing. Coupled with the risk that competitors may adopt a less stringent policy on remote working, there is a risk that employers could fail to recruit their preferred candidates – or lose valued staff – if they are not willing to accept a degree of flexibility and tolerance.
Even if fully remote working falls outside the employer’s policies, employees generally have the right to make a request to work fully remotely via a flexible working request if they have been employed continuously for 26 weeks or more. There are plans to make this right available from the first day of employment, but for now the qualifying period remains in place. This is only the right to request, not a right to flexible working, and employers can reject such requests for a broad range of reasons, including the negative effect on productively and performance.
Nevertheless, employers must fairly consider any request, not least because a refusal without justification could give rise to a claim for discrimination. For example, if the request is made for legitimate childcare reasons, to accommodate a religious belief or as a reasonable adjustment in relation to a disability within the meaning of the Equality Act.
Now the dust has settled after the pandemic, it seems that fully remote roles are destined to make up only a small proportion of jobs in the UK. However, it seems likely that the equilibrium between the expectations of employees and employers will settle on hybrid and agile working, albeit it in a moderated form.
Emma Burroughs (pictured right) is an associate and Tania Goodman (pictured left) is partner and head of employment at Collyer Bristow