Whichever way you look at it, the world has been turned on its head these past few months. Life and society have fundamentally changed and depending on your point of view and the fullness of your glass (half empty or half full, not how quickly or how many times you have reduced it to that level…) they may have changed forever. Work – hopefully – carries on however, but once again, for many of us the way we work, and more pertinently where we work has also changed.
The internet is awash with articles and blogs “detailing” the pros and cons of working from home. As in many aspects of your life and career, it is a balancing act. On the one hand you have reduced commuting costs and time, a better work-life balance and fewer distractions. On the other you have the fact that few people have at their disposal an actual home office, so are forced to work at a less than appropriate workstation i.e. the kitchen table. Plus there is less social interaction and more home distractions, especially for those with children and partners also working from home. The lists on both sides are long and everyone will be able to add their own half dozen.
There are however several more fundamental issues that working from home throws up, both for the employee and the employer, and there is a danger of them being overlooked or even ignored.
Working from Home, Remote Working and Flexible Working
Of course people have worked from home for years, mainly without issues. With the pandemic however, businesses and workers alike have been forced to act quickly – incredibly quickly – and as we know that is something that both camps are not overly comfortable doing. One of the consequences of this is the blurring of lines between the phrases ‘working from home’, ‘remote working’ and ‘flexible working’.
On the surface those may be interchangeable descriptions simply used to describe someone sat in their pyjamas trying to fend off a cat while logging into a Zoom call, but there are crucial differences between them. Differences that should be acknowledged not just in the way the individual works, but in their employment contract.
It does not stop there. Employers have an obligation to carry out health & safety and risk assessments on their employees’ place of work, just as they would if that place of work were at the company’s offices. Likewise, occupational health has been a buzz word for a while, culminating in a push to provide office equipment and furniture that do not impact negatively on the worker’s health. That should not suddenly go out the window now those workers are being forced to work at home.
Insurance and Assurance
Insurance is never a topic that elicits too much excitement, but it is something that needs to be addressed. The employee’s contract of employment should state which party is responsible for insuring any company equipment that is being used at the employee’s home. The employee should also check that working from home does not have an impact on their household insurance or indeed their rental agreement or mortgage.
I touched on the benefits of working from home, but remember when benefits were actually tangible? A shiny carrot that would entice you to a job in the first place or waved in front of you at the interview. Many of those benefits will now no longer be relevant, while new ones come to the fore. Subsidised canteens, gym memberships, free travel… the list goes on, but the small, nice to haves sprinkled on top of a package/salary will need to be re-evaluated when firms look to retain existing and recruit new staff. Similarly, prospective employees will have a change of emphasis when looking at a new employer. Can they provide a safe working environment in the office, how are they handling the whole working from home situation, especially when it comes to such things as onboarding?
Weighting, Weighting, Weighting – (Weighting for BoJo)
Scratch a little deeper below the surface and yet more issues come to light. London Weighting is seen not so much as a perk, but as a necessity for those living and working in the capital. But should that still apply if that individual is sat working from their front room on the Surrey Hampshire borders? Removal would mean changing their contract of employment, but the employee could counter that with the sudden need to heat his home during the daytime. If the same individual argues they need a new Surrey Hampshire Borders Weighting to compensate for them having to heat their beautiful but hardly energy efficient four-bedroom Victorian cottage, could his colleague counter from his Yorkshire studio flat with meteorological data? I am being facetious, but the general point remains. It is a can of worms but one that does need to be looked into.
How Remote is Home?
That brings us to another issue companies are facing. The terms ‘home’ and ‘remote’ are suitably vague to introduce an element of doubt as to just how remote, and which home? Is there anything to stop someone from moving to their holiday home in Lisbon, to take advantage of the warmer weather and cheaper cost of living? It depends. It is down to the individual company, their working from home policy (if such a thing even exists), and their role. Moving to another country does bring up even more layers of complications for both the individual and their employer in the form of tax and national insurance to name just two.
The Even Newer Norm?
I started by stating that the world has changed in a way and with a speed that very few of us would have thought possible. This could just be the start, however. Even more profound changes could abound in a post-COVID world. The Industrial Revolution saw civilisation change in a quarter of a century, as people flocked to the cities to find work and a better life for themselves and their families. We may well be sat at the start of the reverse process. That however is a discussion for another day, and another place.
Iain Rainey is the Managing Director of Jameson Legal. He specialises in the recruitment of lawyers in the Middle East.