Phil Hall, AAT Head of Public Affairs & Public Policy, looks at the issues and obligations of businesses, charities, partnerships, and the public sector responding to the “new normal”.
Earlier this year, Deloitte announced that all of its people would be able to choose when, where and how they worked in the future once it was safe to do so. KPMG has introduced a “four-day fortnight” hybrid model of working that sees its workers spend four days in the office and the rest of the fortnight either at home or at client sites. HMRC confirmed earlier this year that it would allow 64,000 of its employees to work from home at least two days a week.
In contrast, In June 2021, 50 major businesses wrote to the Prime Minister urging him to encourage people to return to the office, although it was interesting to note that several of these have publicly announced that their own head office workers do not have to return to work, indicating a “do as we say, not as we do” approach to the issue.
Recent discussions at both the AAT Tax Panel and the AAT Payroll Panel (panels that consist of a diverse range of external professionals as well as AAT Licensed Accountants) concluded there is no “one size fits all” solution to this issue and that companies should do what is best for them taking into account the views and demands of their staff, and their clients/members whilst acknowledging that there was now clearly no need for many people to work in an office environment. There would be different approaches in different sectors but also different approaches in the same sector, which could generate a competitive advantage in terms of recruitment and retention.
But beneath the positive news stories around cost savings, increased productivity and better work/life balance are a series of troubling developments.
For instance, it is widely anticipated that the number of unfair dismissal claims brought about by employees will significantly increase in the coming months as employees compelled to return to the office refuse to do so on the grounds that they do not feel safe returning to work – either due to the commute or the workplace.
The Trade Union Congress (TUC) recently highlighted that many employers were breaching official guidance by forcing staff to “needlessly” work in offices and other workplaces – and says that this points to wider a health and safety enforcement crisis. According to a June 2021 TUC survey, many employers have still not taken the necessary action to ensure that workplaces are Covid-secure. In the poll, 46% stated that their employer has not taken technical measures to improve airflow at their workplaces; 29% said their employer did not consult them on a Covid-secure risk assessment; and 11% confirming that social distancing still isn’t enabled in their workplace.
In June 2021, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee published the findings of its inquiry on the future world of work, which concluded that the Government lacks a long-term plan to support people to adapt to the numerous changes in the labour market. New workplace technologies and approaches brought about by the “fourth industrial revolution” – accelerated by the pandemic – risk increasing existing inequalities. The inquiry has led to calls for a greater focus on retraining and reskilling (AAT anyone?) and says that the Government’s major employment support schemes, Kickstart and Restart, need to do a lot more to meet the needs of disabled people.
The Labour Party has called on the Government to set a “default presumption in favour of flexible working” with an accompanying duty on employers to accommodate this “as far as is reasonable and practical where there is no reason a job cannot be done flexibly and remotely.” Labour wants workers to have the right to flexible working from the first day of employment except in exceptional circumstances; employers to be compelled to offer flexible working arrangements in employment contracts; and advertise the available types of such flexibility in job adverts. The Labour Party is also calling for workers to have the ‘right to switch off’ and disconnect from work outside of working hours to protect workers mental health – as already happens in Ireland -and has also called on the Government to help SMEs adapt to flexible working practices and increase the uptake of flexible working.
Of course, there is no need for any employer to wait for the threat of litigation or the reality of legislative changes. Employers should already be taking into account their employees’ needs and those of the organisation, ensuring they are as inclusive and diverse as possible and building flexibility into everything they do.
This is the direction of travel AAT intends to take. Next month, we will switch to a hybrid working model and will reduce our central London office footprint in due course.
Phil Hall is AAT's Head of Public Affairs and Public Policy.