Flexible Working Requests: Is working from home always better?

Following the unprecedented events of the Coronavirus pandemic many workers are temporarily working from home. Many employees have enjoyed the change and will be hoping to make this temporary change into a permanent one by making a flexible working request for remote working arrangements.

Employees are entitled to submit a flexible working request if they have worked for the same employer for at least 26 weeks and employers must deal with the request in a 'reasonable manner'. Some employers will want their people back in the office as soon as it is safe to do so, whilst others will be more open to a flexible approach moving forwards. As many employees have been successfully working from home since March, refusing a flexible working request will be more difficult than it previously was for employers. In this article we consider the advantages of office working and anticipate the types of arguments employers may start to see from their employees in favour of home working, when requests are submitted.

Advantages of office working

Building and maintaining relationships with colleagues

Colleagues benefit from seeing each other's faces and body language in the office. It is harder to catch the nuances of facial expressions, gestures, body language and tone of voice through email and video calls. An understanding of verbal and non-verbal communication is vital to successfully understanding colleagues and facilitating collaboration amongst team members.

Face-to-face interactions can be more ad hoc and less formal than video-calls or emails (which tend to have some structure of formality). Fellow colleagues develop 'exchange relationships' which are built on informal negations, favours, promises or understandings. These relationships, which tend to make work easier and more rewarding, are harder to develop through technology. 

If some employees are working from home and others attend the office, office workers may accuse home workers of 'slacking' and co-workers may not give home-workers as much leeway as they might if they were in the office.

Employee recognition provider, Achievers, released research looking into whether employees in the UK feel connected to their company's culture and colleagues during the COVID-19 pandemic. This research suggests that 33% of British workers feel less connected to their colleagues.

Efficient decision making

An advantage of face-to-face interaction is that decisions are made in real time. The flexibility of the 'answer at your own pace' characteristic of emails can be useful but can slow the pace of decision making.

Work-life balance

It can be harder for workers to separate work from home life and some find it harder to switch off when they live in the same place they work.

Workers feeling like they are always 'at work' could lead to a dip in well-being and ultimately a burnout. As noted above, it can then be harder for people to observe their colleagues and if a colleague's wellbeing is suffering it can be harder to recognise. According to the Institute for Employment Studies  ("IES"), in April 2020 50% of those working from home reported they were unhappy with their work-life balance and 48% reported working patterns that included long and irregular hours. Another survey by Skillcast (with fieldwork conducted by YouGov) found that only 68% of home workers take regular breaks from their desk.

It can also be hard for the people a worker lives with to recognise that they are working during their contracted hours even though they are at home.

Feeling isolated

One of the main disadvantages of working from home is that workers don’t have direct contact with anyone else during the day, unless they have family or housemates at home. Even if they do have people in their home, it is likely workers will start to feel isolated from colleagues. Without going to the workplace, it is more challenging to build supportive relationships with colleagues and for new-starters to integrate themselves in the team.

Employee engagement experts, Qualtrics, conducted research into COVID-19 and mental health. Their research suggests that since the pandemic created a spike in remote working, 44% of UK workers admitted their mental health has suffered since lockdown. According to IES 33% of home workers report feeling frequently isolated.

Quite a lot of people go into work to meet new people and catch up with colleagues. Skillcast identified under 35's to be struggling the most with missing the workplace. 63% of under 35's miss the social aspect of work, 44% miss the routine of the office and 59% of under 35's struggle with staying motivated at home.

Undermining collaboration: ideas

Ad hoc discussions and impromptu meetings between colleagues in the office can lead to surprising breakthroughs and innovative ideas, whilst also serving as a social and wellbeing benefit. It is hard to replicate having an impromptu meeting over a coffee or lunch in the kitchen when working from home.

These types of spontaneous discussions are less likely to happen via email or video-call.

Learning

Office workers are constantly in a position to learn from their peers, whether by overhearing conversations or being pulled into a meeting at the last minute. It is hard to replicate picking up the best practices of colleagues when working from home. These opportunities decrease when working from home unless there is an active effort to provide networking and learning opportunities.

It is also easier for managers to keep an eye on employee performance to see what requires improvement.

Better understanding of organisations

On-site employees often develop better understanding of their roles and the culture of their organisation. There may be pieces of information that workers don’t hear about if working from home. Consequently, home-workers may miss out. The information may or may not be extremely important to the worker, but it is usually good to know about and not hearing it could make workers feel isolated from the company.

Whilst finding that workers feel less connected to their colleagues, Achievers also found that 33% of workers feel less connected to their company culture.

Advantages of working from home

Work-life balance

Home workers may argue they are happier and are loyal employees because they are less stressed, have more time for hobbies, interests and personal relationships.

Arguably working from home can also lead to better health in a variety of ways. Workers may have more time for physical activity, the ability to eat healthier, the ability to recover from surgery or illness at home, the ease of caring for a health issue or disability and the option to create a comfortable and ergonomic workplace.

Home workers are also not tied to their homes either. They could work in coffee shops, the garden or even abroad.

Commute

Working from home will eliminate the time spent commuting and the costs and stresses associated with it. This time can instead be used for working or focusing on priorities outside of work such as getting extra sleep, spending time with family, getting a workout in, doing chores or eating a healthy breakfast.

Increased productivity and performance

Workers may argue that they are more productive as they will not be interrupted by colleagues and impromptu meetings may turn into emails or scheduled video calls. If workers are alone their home working space will likely be quieter than an open plan office. Workers may also argue that the lack of commute makes them less tired and gives them more time to focus on their work, making them more productive.

Home workers can also make their working space their own to suit their lifestyle and the best way they work. Some workers may prefer to work in silence and focus during set hour whilst others may prefer to listen to background music.

Despite the theoretical benefits of working from home, research during the pandemic suggests otherwise. Skillcast reported that only 70% of home workers think they are as productive at home as in the office. In support of the findings in the Skillcast survey, Qualtrics's study reported that working from home has made 22% of UK workers feel less productive. The research also says that 30% of home workers find it harder to focus at home than in the workplace, 25% of workers feel less motivated and 24% find they encounter too many distractions at home.

Money savings

Workers who work from home can save money on petrol, train tickets or car maintenance and parking fees, professional wardrobe and lunches and drinks bought out.  

Workers may also suggest employers will save if entire teams are working from home. It is likely less space will be required and therefore real estate costs and other overheads may reduce. This will of course depend on the type of operation the business is running.

Learning 

Home workers will find themselves developing the skills to look for their own answers and becoming more pro-active without their colleagues a few feet away.

Effective communication

As home workers don’t have their colleagues physically around them, they may become more aware of the importance of keeping in touch. Instead of popping over to see a colleague they will have to make more of an effort to call or email them.

Home workers may also find they write more clear and concise emails because informal chats turn into email chains instead.

As you can see, there are competing factors that employers will need to consider when dealing with flexible working requests. If you would like assistance with such a request, please contact Lisa Wallis or your usual Foot Anstey contact.

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