Helen Burgess: Long-term hybrid working plans key for many employers

workingPrior to the Covid-19 pandemic, it was commonplace for most employees to spend their full working week in the office, but it would seem now that hybrid working is here to stay. While up until recently many businesses have been flexible with their policies around hybrid working, more are now looking to implement long-term strategies regarding how it will look going forward.

For one, there has been an increase in the number of employers looking for support with office closures, often as the result of fewer employees being in the office on a day-to-day basis, and the costs of running the office outweighing the benefit of keeping it open. Cases are a mixture of businesses closing their only premises, and also some which are streamlining their portfolio by closing some offices and keeping others open.

Any such proposals to would require either consultation with employees to seek to change their permanent place of work, or discussions with them to exercise a mobility clause in their employment contract. Any contractual changes would then need to be documented.

Employers could provide equipment such as laptops, keyboards and chairs to employees to enable staff to do their jobs at home, or pay employees to cover their additional overheads due to working at home, although employees would save on the cost of commuting to work.

There are tax considerations regarding the latter two options; for example, equipment would have to be provided for business use only, so that there is no taxable benefit to the employee. The amounts that can be reimbursed tax free as home working expenses are a maximum of £26 per month for monthly paid employees or £6 per week for weekly paid staff, without the employer having to justify the amount paid.

In cases where offices are being closed, or where there is no obligation for employees to be in the office, we are seeing more and more examples of employees upping sticks and moving abroad. Many have diverse workforces from across the world, and hybrid working has offered up the opportunity for employees to move home, either to their homeland or to experience a new culture by moving to a new country altogether. Many businesses are supporting this, trusting their workforce to perform remotely whether they are two or 2,000 miles from the office.

However, there are practical issues to consider, such as which time zone the employee will be working in and whether this fits with the UK operation. Additionally, there are legal considerations, such as the employment rights and obligations employers would need to adhere to in the relevant country where the employee was based, whether there were immigration rules the employee would have to comply with, and questions around tax both from an individual and employer perspective. These would all need to be investigated in each country before an employee moves there, in order to understand and minimise the risks for both employer and employee.

Another trend that has picked up steam in recent months has been the four-day working week, which some businesses started to adopt on a trial basis earlier this year. The success businesses have had during the trials, where employees get 100% pay for 80% of their normal hours, has led to some businesses making this a permanent policy, while others have seen the success and are deciding to try it themselves.

Despite the above trends showing an acceptance from employers that hybrid working is here to stay, many are still expecting more from their employees in terms of visibility in the office. There are cases where businesses are seeing discrimination claims being brought against them where employees are refusing to come into the office.

What is clear is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach that will suit all businesses when it comes to determining how they approach hybrid working. Speaking to employees to find out how they are feeling about an office closure, meaning a move to complete remote working, or conversely about being asked to come into the office more, will allow businesses to gauge the mood of the workforce when it comes to changes to working patterns.

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It is important for businesses to regularly take temperature checks of how employees are feeling in this new working world, as failure to do so may mean employers miss signs of discontent among their workforce, which could lead to employees looking for jobs elsewhere.

Helen Burgess is an employment partner at Gateley Legal