Pandemic increases impetus for more employee choice over flexible working

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By Professor Tony Dobbins, Professor of Employment Relations and HR Management
President of the British Universities Industrial Relations Association

A recent UK Parliament House of Commons Library briefing paper on flexible working by Professor Tony Dobbins* considers remote and hybrid work patterns during the coronavirus pandemic and implications for working futures.

Although flexible working has long been on the policy agenda, the pandemic brought it to widescale public attention. Lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 meant many employers and employees were compelled to rapidly move to remote working. For many who were able to work from home, this was their first sustained experience of homeworking. As the Omicron variant emerged in December 2021, the UK government again issued guidance to “work from home if you can”.

The pandemic has stimulated an appetite for continuing remote and/or hybrid working among many employees. That said, individual employees and employers hold different perspectives, notably between those advocating a return to offices/normal place of work and those pushing for expanded remote and hybrid future work options.

Paradoxes and tensions of flexible working

Research cited in the briefing paper shows that employees experience a mix of benefits and risks from remote/hybrid working, depending on their specific circumstances.

On one hand, flexible working may mean that employees experience greater autonomy and discretion to decide how to organise their working day, enhanced job satisfaction, well-being, work-life balance, and less commuting.

Less positively, however, homeworkers may work longer hours, experience work intensification, difficulties in separating work and non-work boundaries, and isolation.

Much depends on the type of flexible working policy, who makes the key decisions, and the specific context in which it is implemented.

Flexibility may be a contested issue between employers and employees, so needs to be carefully managed. This may be attributable to tensions and conflicts around competing priorities and choices when the interests of employers and employees clash. For example, employers and employees may have different expectations around flexible working requests and issues like work-life balance, trust, presenteeism and managing performance.

Narrowing power imbalances

Greater collective consultation and negotiated agreement with workers’ representatives is important to balance competing interests regarding flexible working. This is vital for resolving tensions and accommodating palatable trade-offs and compromises necessary for cooperative employment relationships and mutual gains. Many employees still do not have access to or choice over any form of flexible working, reflecting inequalities.

This connects to commentary about whether flexible working is too one-sided in power relations in favour of employer-oriented flexibility, and whether a policy push is required towards a more two-way employee-led trajectory. This will be influenced by future reforms of flexible working rights.

Legal rights to flexible working: ‘right to request’ v ‘right to have’

Under existing employment law, workers don’t have a statutory right to flexible working arrangements like WFH, only a right to request it after 26 weeks in employment. However, the UK Government issued a consultation in September 2021, proposing to make flexible working requests a right for all workers from day one in employment.

Nonetheless, stakeholders like the Trades Union Congress propose stronger reforms of flexible working rights than presented by the Government; notably that flexible working should be a default ‘right to have’ (employees should not have to request it).

A ‘right to request’ compared a ‘right to have’ flexible working relates to relative distribution of power-sharing, employee voice, and choices and influence at work.

Other reform proposals include employees having a legal ‘right to disconnect’, which relates to worker’s rights to disengage from work and work-related communications, such as emails, during non-work hours. Rights to disconnect exist in various European countries, but not yet in the UK.

*Tony Dobbins is a Parliamentary Academic Fellow in the UK Parliament.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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