Is it time for employees to have a legal right to work from home?

The coronavirus pandemic has certainly shifted expectations as to what can be achieved when working from home.

Millions of employees throughout the world have continued to work by successfully using new technology edge while also juggling difficult childcare responsibilities.

This has given rise to the German government announcing that it will be publishing a proposal this Autumn to introduce a law that would give all citizens the legal right to work from home if their workplaces allow it.

Perhaps it is time to consider if such a law should be implemented in the UK.

Currently, employees in the UK have the right to request flexible working if they have worked for their employer for at least 26 weeks. The employer must deal with such requests in a reasonable manner but is able to refuse them.

A legal right to work from home would go further than the current position, enabling employees to propose a way of working that also works for the employer, with a presumption that such a proposal would be accepted.

To date, working from home for one or two days a week has been shown to contribute positively to employees’ mental health, improve work/life balance and achieve a certain level of focus. Having a law that gives everyone the legal right to work from home could lead to an improvement in employee morale and save individual employees both time and money. Such a law would also be likely to remove any remaining stigma (if it exists in a post-Coronavirus world) associated with the practice.

There are, however, possible negative consequences arising out of working from home. Employees may be left feeling isolated and out of the loop and it could have a detrimental impact on their health if their workstation is not appropriately configured. A new law would need to make clear that working from home would not be a requirement, but rather a choice, and steps would need to be taken to ensure that employers are able to fulfil their health and safety obligations.

It is also the case that some jobs simply cannot be done from home – a new law would need to include clear parameters about the circumstances in which an employer can refuse to allow working from home.

Particular jobs may need to be excluded, for example jobs in the hospitality or retail sector. From an employer perspective, it would also seem sensible to include exemptions which allow an employer to require employees to come into the office in certain circumstances, such as to attend training or meetings, even if permission has been granted to work from home generally.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a seismic shift in working patterns and behaviours. What is currently called the “new normal” is likely to create some long-lasting changes to the way in which businesses operate globally.

One such change (particularly in light of the fact that social distancing is likely to be with us for some time to come) is almost certainly likely to be a greater acceptance of working from home and, therefore, a new law providing employees with a legal entitlement to it (whilst also ensuring that employers can control and manage the process) would seem to be an appropriate (and some may say an inevitable) way forward.

Mark Kaye is senior associate and Lydia Octon-Burke is associate in the employment and labour group at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner.