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Work from Home Day: new laws needed to make flexible working patterns available for all workers after pandemic

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  • Prime minister signals that the work from home order will be lifted on 21 June
  • Rise of homeworking for office workers must not lead to “new inequalities”, warns TUC
  • Lack of employment bill in Queen’s Speech a ‘colossal failure’ to address changed expectations of flexibility at work following the pandemic

Today (Friday) is the 16th annual Work from Home Day, organised by Work Wise UK as part of Work Wise Week – a week of activity to promote employment practices that improve work-life balance.

In previous years, the TUC has published detailed analysis showing homeworking trends. This year, the TUC explored the available data, including Labour Force Survey (LFS) questions that attempt to distinguish temporary home working enforced in the pandemic from permanent home working.

The headline figures derived from LFS data suggest that permanent home working may have doubled from 6.7% in 2019 to 12.2% in 2020.

However, the TUC cautions against interpreting the 2020 figure as a definitive indicator. It relies on self-reporting in an unusual year with high rates of enforced home working. And many workers remain uncertain of the future policy in their workplace.

This year, we have therefore chosen not to present a detailed analysis of this data by factors such as geography, sector, or characteristics of workers.

The future of homeworking

While the TUC believes caution is necessary on specific figures for the current scale of permanent homeworking, all indications point to working from home and hybrid working being significantly higher after the pandemic than before.

As more workplaces reopen, employers will have to negotiate new working patterns amid changed worker and employer expectations.

The TUC says that employers in all sectors must think about the flexible working needs of all their workers – including key workers and those who cannot easily work from home. Many workers who had previously been unable to work from home now have had the chance to try it, and may seek to continue to work from home, either for all or some of their hours.

The union body warns of “a new class divide” between those who were able to work from home in the pandemic, who will find it easier to achieve more flexible working patterns in the future, and those who worked from workplaces or were furloughed, who may have fewer options for flexible working patterns.

Flexible working is not just working from home, but also includes other non-traditional working patterns, such as having predictable or fixed hours, working as a job-share, or working flexitime, term-time only hours, annualised hours or compressed hours.

Many of these options would suit workers who have to work from workplaces, and should be on offer for them. In particular, the TUC says that many more workers should have the right to set hours, to enable them to manage their working life and other commitments such as childcare, rather than having to make different arrangements every week when shifts are announced.

The union body is calling on the government to strengthen all workers’ rights to flexible working. The expansion of flexible working patterns must include all workers – regardless of whether they can do their jobs from home. And home working must not be forced onto workers in ways that only benefit employers – such as to cut office costs without consideration of staff needs.

The TUC is preparing to publish research and policy proposals in the coming weeks on fair flexibility in working patterns for all working people, whatever type of work they do.

The union body is concerned that the government does not share the same sense of urgency in this area, given that employer’s policies and practices are likely to alter considerably following the pandemic, and the government has announced that it will lift the work from home order on 21 June.

Unions are surprised and disappointed that the Queen’s Speech did not include any legislation on employment rights and flexible working, despite prior commitments to making flexible working the default in all workplaces.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said:

“It’s likely that many workers will want to spend more time working from home before. And it’s vital that employers have positive and constructive discussions with staff and unions about how to make this work.

“But a sole focus on home working rights would create new inequalities for those who cannot easily work from home. All workers need stronger rights to the full range of flexible working options like flexitime, predictable shifts and job shares.

“The prime minister’s failure to include an employment bill in his legislative programme is a colossal failure to address the needs of working people. He must bring forward new rights to flexible working without delay. And he must urge employers to think through how they can offer a range of flexible working patterns to all their workers, whether based in a workplace or not.”

On the need for safe returns to work when current guidance to work from home ends, which the prime minister says is likely on 21 June, she added:

“This year, Work from Home Day arrives just when many workplaces are gearing up for staff to return after 21 June. Those returns must be shaped by genuine consultation with staff and unions. And the government must step up health and safety enforcement to make sure all workplaces are covid-secure.”

Work Wise UK Chief Executive Phil Flaxton said:

“As the UK emerges from lockdown the way we work may change. Will we end presenteeism, reduce commuting, use designated workspaces in homes, or make hybrid working across workplaces and homes the norm?

“National Work from Home Day provides an opportunity for employers to start conversations with their staff on future ways of working. Working people need a say on what works for them – and what doesn’t. If their needs are respected, it could really help healthy changes that benefit the whole working population.

“However, new approaches cannot be ‘one size fits all’. Employers, trade unions and the government must work together to ensure that those who cannot work remotely are not excluded from modern flexible working.

“The pandemic has reminded us all how fragile we are, along with our everyday activity like working structures too. Change can happen fast and from surprising directions. This should be a period of reflection for us all, while we still have time to plan a better world of work after the pandemic.”

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