Last reviewed 7 January 2021

Since the first lockdown back in March 2020, homeworking has become a very significant part of many organisation’s daily operation. Ben McCarthy, lead researcher and employment law writer at Croner-i, explores where we are with homeworking.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, working from home was an option for employees, but not as widely taken up as it later became. If the job did not offer homeworking from day one, staff could request flexible working, which could include homeworking, after they had worked in the organisation for 26 weeks; a right that remains now, although organisations do not have to permit such a request, but they do need to provide sound business reasons for its refusal.

Then came March 2020, and everything changed. Due to coronavirus restrictions, government guidance was clear that all employees should work from home if they could, in order to encourage social distancing. However, when the first lockdown came to an end and restrictions started to be relaxed, this changed.

England

As coronavirus cases dipped during the summer months, the Government in England started to encourage workers to return to the office, citing concern that lack of footfall in busy city centres was having a detrimental impact on local businesses. From 1 August, organisations were granted more discretion to ask staff back to the workplace, and indeed the Government was rumoured to be considering a campaign at the time to encourage this nationwide.

However, the dawning of September, and an increase in coronavirus cases, changed all of this. In a speech to the House of Commons on 22 September, Prime Minister Boris Johnson u-turned on this position, advising that office workers should once again work from home if they could. This was only further complicated by corresponding government guidance that came out at the time, stating that workers should work from home if they could “effectively”.

It was the word “effectively” that was important here; it meant that while the general position should be that staff work from home, organisations did not necessarily need to let them do so if they were not as “effective” at home. There was not a clear definition as to what “effective” meant, which did allow organisations to still keep staff in the workplace if they felt their effectiveness would be impacted upon by working remotely.

This guidance, however, changed again with the implementation of the national lockdown, which is running from 5 November to 2 December 2020. New regulations released to instruct upon the lockdown stated that people should work from home where possible. This gave a much clearer instruction than we’d seen previously, removing the word “effectively” and stating that if workers were able to work from home they should regardless of effectiveness.

From 3 December the guidance changed again. The Covid-19 Winter Plan, released on 23 November, detailed that the Government is keen to encourage homeworking and wishes to be “very clear” that workers should work from home if they can do so. Again, the word “effectively” was no longer present, essentially meaning that if workers could work from home, they should do so.

Flash forward to the present day, and England is once again in a lockdown. This time, the guidance is that individuals should only leave home for work where it is not possible for them to conduct it from home. Now, it seems, there is much less flexibility. If a job can be done from home, employers are being highly encouraged to facilitate this. It is expected that this guidance will remain in place until at least the spring.

Scotland and Wales

The position in the other devolved nations has been much simpler to keep track of. Essentially, it has remained that workers should work from home if possible, and indeed the Governments of both countries have never indicated a desire to change this.

Following the announcement of a new lockdown in Scotland on 4 January, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon emphasised that businesses should take working from home “very seriously” and re-assess all functions in their operation to see where it is possible.

The future

There certainly is cause for optimism as we head into 2021, with the roll-out of two coronavirus vaccines suggesting that normal life may be able to return at some point during this year. But what does this mean for homeworking? Commentary from the UK Government has been inconsistent on this point, with some ministers suggesting that homeworking will be more widespread, and even more protected in law, and others saying that the impact on local economies means it should be discouraged.

For now, all organisations must keep up with the latest expectations placed upon them by coronavirus restrictions, and facilitate homeworking as much as is possible. The Government accepts that not all businesses will be able to let staff work remotely, and there is some flexibility on people coming into work if it cannot be done from home, but organisations would be wise to be able to clearly outline why staff are being asked into the workplace.