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COVID-19:Could Remote Working Become A Legal Right?

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, a meagre 1.7 million people worked remotely in the UK. However, when lockdown was initiated on 23 March 2020, it brought with it instantaneous changes to the way we work. Now, the figure of employees working remotely has soared to an estimated 20 million.

The recent lockdown-lifting roadmap extracted from the government’s 50-page dossier, entitled “Our Plan to Rebuild”, suggests that “smarter measures” are to be introduced. The document outlines that these measures will have the “lowest social, economic and social costs”.

Despite this, employees who are already working remotely, have been urged to stay inside and work from home. Questions are now being raised over whether the adoption of remote working will continue once the pandemic has been effectively contained.

Current law on remote working

Back in 2014, employment law changed to provide workers with more flexibility. Under the Employment Rights Acts 1996 and the Flexible Working Regulations 2014, the legislative changes meant that workers could make a flexible working request.

To be eligible for this kind of request, an employee would need to work for an employer for 26 weeks. Additionally, the request could be of the following:

  • A change to the amount of working hours
  • A change to the location an employee works in
  • A change to the times an employee must work

In Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s 2019 manifesto, he made further promises to expand flexible working regulations. As recommended by Guy Opperman MP in his employment report, “All Hands on Deck,” it outlined that flexible working should be offered to all employees, regardless of whether they have worked for an employer for 26 weeks or not. The manifesto stated: “We will encourage flexible working and consult on making it the default unless employers have good reasons not to…”

Now, the fallout of COVID-19 and the need to contain the virus, may see the Prime Minister finally make good on this pledge.

Remote working to become a legal right?

COVID-19 has caused a seismic shift in the way people perform their jobs. Before restrictions were enforced, 70% of workers had no experience working from home.

Shockingly, Global business solutions firm 8×8, recently released data that showed the UK to be the least prepared for mass-remote working. It found that 17% of firms did not have access to the kinds of devices required for remote working, and on top of this, 15% did not permit remote working. Meanwhile, Leeseman, a global workplace performance firm, found that in the UK, 79% of workers who worked remotely, only did so once a week or less.

Comparatively, Germany has announced plans to table employment legislation for this Autumn. This will enshrine remote working as a right into law. Despite the UK’s lack of preparation, Whitehall is reportedly also considering making this a permanent fixture. According to The Telegraph, officials at the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Department in Whitehall, have begun discussions to further current legislation. If legislation similar to Germany’s legislation were to be passed, requests for remote working could only be rejected if an employee’s job could only be performed in the office.

Speaking about this proposed legislation to the newspaper, a Minister said: “It makes complete sense”. Frances O’Grady, the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), who had previously criticised the government for it’s flimsy return to work guidelines, welcomed the potential change, and called it: “A big step forward,” for UK workers.

The consequences of remote working

There are a myriad of benefits to increased remote working, both for workers and the environment. According to a recent study assessing the impact of remote working on effort and wellbeing, remote workers found their work more “pleasurable and stimulating”. Further to this, the research discovered that remote workers also reflected more fondly upon their organisation. A total of 70.5% of those surveyed either agreed or strongly agreed that they wouldn’t opt to move to another higher paying organisation. Workers also report a higher level of job satisfaction.

On top of this, not only will workers save time, money and effort by not having to commute, but this will also have a significant impact on the environment. The transformation of transportation infrastructure could lead to a decrease in fossil fuel consumption, lower emissions, less congestion, less waste, and better air-quality.

On the flipside, studies have also yielded results showing that borderless working can result in workers finding it difficult to “switch off” and “unwind”. Additionally, without creating an effective and sustainable work-life balance, feelings of loneliness and isolation may arise.

That being said, a study conducted by Gallup, found that only 21% of remote workers named loneliness as their biggest struggle, and 90% planned on continuing  working from home for the rest of their lives. Moreover, according to Personnel Today, despite an initial lack of preparation, 77% of workers now believe their employers have handled the transition to remote working well.

And, while some have pointed to communication issues as being the reason to steer clear of increased remote working, according to a study by Buffer, only 21% of those polled found collaboration to suffer when not in the office. Plus, there are now a wide selection of collaborative tools for workers to use, such as Slack, Zoom, InVision, GitHub and Trello.

One potentially difficult issue to navigate when introducing legislation giving worker’s the right to work remotely, is how it would be enforced. Speaking to The Belfast Telegraph about this concern, Louise McAloon from Worthingtons Solicitors said: “If they’re going to create a statutory right it would have to have bells and whistles around it, such as what reason would be legitimate for an employer saying you can’t work from home.There would also have to be the right to challenge that to a tribunal”. She added: “I think the idea of giving them a legal right to work from home is going to be fairly difficult to implement and potentially difficult to enforce”.

However, now that many have had a glimpse of what life could be like, they may not want to return back to “normality”. Reflecting on this unprecedented shift, Matt Mullenweg, Chief Executive of WordPress, said: “Millions of people will get the chance to experience days without long commutes, or the harsh inflexibility of not being able to stay close to home when a family member is sick… This might be a chance for a great reset in terms of how we work”.

Ultimately, considering the numerous benefits to remote working, legislating the right to remote working, seems a step in the right direction. Whether it be improved mental health and productivity levels, saving money or a positive impact on the environment, despite its potential difficulties, remote working has the potential to change lives, for the better.

Article Created By Madaline Dunn

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