Is the current trend for employees to return to office working likely to continue in 2024?

Most employees are looking for a balance between their work and personal life. The Covid pandemic meant that many employees were able to work form home and this has continued following the end of the pandemic.

Many employers have been keen to keep a “hybrid working” or “flexible working” structure in place, with employees working partly at home and partly in the office. However, the current trend is for more employers to be asking their staff to increase the time spent working from the office or even to return to full time office working.

In October 2023, the global recruitment company Hays published the results of a survey that they had undertaken of 15,000 professional employees and employers. The survey found that there were now more professionals working in the workplace than from home.

The results of the survey found that less than two in five (39%) of the employees were working in a hybrid way compared to 43% who were now fully office based. The figure for office-based employees in the previous year was 36% – so the trend seems to be a return to office working.

Many employers also indicated to Hays that they will require greater staff attendance in the office in the next 12 months.

Can an employer force an employee back to the workplace?

The starting point is to look at the employment contract. The contract should state the place of work. If it states that the employees place of work is the office, then it could be deemed to be a reasonable management instruction to ask employees to return to work from the office.

Employers do however need to be careful about asking employees to return to full time office work and are advised to seek legal advice first. They should consult with their employees and give them sufficient notice of any change particularly as some employees may have adjusted their lifestyle to fit to a homeworking and hybrid working structure or they may have a caring responsibility and other employees may have moved house away from the office since they started homeworking!

If you are an employee who has been asked to return to office work but you are not keen to do so or if you have a caring responsibility and have been employed for at least 26 weeks with your employer then you could make a request for flexible working, which the employer should reasonably consider. From 6 April 2024 this right will be extended so that all employees will be able to make a request for flexible working from day one of their employment.

Employers also need to ensure that it is safe for employees to work in the office and for some employees with a disability, allowing them to continue with homeworking may be a reasonable adjustment.

There are potential benefits for employers in allowing home and hybrid working. It can give employees a better work life balance, reduced travel time, higher productivity, and a greater talent pool to recruit from.

Employers would be wise to consider the benefits of hybrid and home working before forcing their employees to increase the time spent working in the office and whether they have a good business reason to support any such change.  Employers also need to ensure they still have adequate office space to accommodate full time office working.

Joanne Briscoe, associate solicitor says:

“Before Covid it was very unusual for an employee to be permitted to work from home. The culture has now changed and many employees would not want to work in a fully office-based role. Any employer planning to force the employees back to full time work would be wise to seek legal advice first and review their home and hybrid working policies”.

For further help and advice, please contact Joanne Briscoe, Associate Solicitor at Wilkes on 0121 733 8000 or via email at [email protected]. You can also contact any other member of the Employment Team on 0121 233 4333 or at [email protected].

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