Is remote working always a right fit for SMEs?

By Claudia Gerrard, below, Client Legal Director, The Legal Director

As we enter into a post-pandemic ‘new normal’, businesses are exerting pressure on their staff to revert to traditional office-based work patterns. Some major tech giants, including Amazon, Zoom, and Meta, have already led the charge by mandating a minimum of three days a week in the office. Many other corporate entities are following suit.

This shift has been fuelled by numerous aspects: effective communication, collaboration, and innovation play pivotal roles in organisational growth. Additionally, in-office environments provide senior leaders with a better platform to nurture and develop talent. However, this transformation comes at a price. A recent study revealed a 50% increase in tribunals related to remote working, driven by employees grappling with the challenges of a return to the office. Rising costs of travel, family or childcare arrangements and sometimes the need to relocate have been found to be the primary reasons for this.

The question arises: should SMEs join the trend of mandating a return to the physical workplace? Or does this present an opportunity for SMEs to attract and retain talent by offering a credible alternative for employees who are reluctant to sacrifice their current work-life balance?

Part of the consideration process for SMEs in this instance is understanding your legal obligations. The law sets clear guidance for employers on this, stating that they must allow staff the freedom to work flexibly in certain situations. Over time, and mostly fuelled by the pandemic, this has expanded – and now also covers fully remote and hybrid ways of working.

Whilst these new ways of working tend to be well greeted by employees, it can prove challenging for employers if they are not fully prepared. Problems can arise if employees do not feel listened to, and similarly if employers feel that they are not seeing the same level of output from the team. Employers are legally obliged to grant employees the right to request flexible working – and failure to do so can be a costly mistake. When handling these requests, employers must be fair and consistent, taking into account both how it will benefit the employee without negatively impacting the working environment. It is also important for employers to be aware that there can be additional costs, such as extra equipment, insurance or even home running costs. It is imperative that responsibilities for this are made clear at the outset of an agreement.

Employees need a sense of belonging and culture, even if they are working from home. One way to ensure that the team feels connected is periodically establishing a routine for an in-person day or team events. One day a week in an office space, or hotdesking can be an effective technique for maintaining a sense of culture and teamwork.

Similarly, it is paramount that employers remember that every employee’s situation will be different, and therefore implementing strict policies risks discrimination claims. If possible, employers could offer an ‘open office’ meaning not everyone in the team has to work from home if they do not wish to.

Employees at home should still be provided clear guidelines for working hours, holidays or notification of sickness. Similar rules apply for security of equipment and data, especially if family members or third parties can access work laptops or paperwork. Implementation of measures such as passwords and shredding help to maintain security. Additionally, consider conducting a data privacy impact assessment if an employee accesses personal data remotely.

SMEs must remember that health and safety regulations still apply to remote work. The business must provide a safe working system for remote employees. This may include assessing remote workstations, display screen equipment, eyesight tests, and managing any mental health issues associated with lone working.

A trial period can be beneficial to determine the feasibility of flexible work arrangements. If the trial is unsuccessful, you may consider reverting to office-based work.

Ultimately, as a small business mindful of potential risks and costs, you may need to accept that ‘flexible working’ might not be a perfect fit for your organisation – but this can be a trial-and-error process.

Claudia Gerrard is an experienced in-house counsel and serves as the Client Legal Director for The Legal Director