Last reviewed 21 July 2021

Since the first lockdown back in March 2020, homeworking has become a very significant part of many organisation’s daily operation. Claire Simms, Content Consultant 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 2020, 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 ran 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 2020 the guidance changed again. The Covid-19 Winter Plan, released on 23 November 2020, detailed that the Government was keen to encourage homeworking and wished to be “very clear” that workers should work from home if they could 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. The Government moved to Step 4 of the roadmap out of lockdown on 19 July 2021, which means that all businesses can now open and the Government is no longer instructing people to work from home. However, due to the rise in cases of coronavirus, the Government is recommending a phased return to the workplace over the summer.

Scotland and Wales

The position in the other devolved nations has been much simpler to keep track of. Essentially, the position is that workers should work from home if possible.

Following the announcement of a new lockdown in Scotland on 4 January 2021, 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.

Scotland released updated guidance in April 2021 stating that working from home and working flexibly remains the default — if organisations have largely managed to have their staff working from home effectively during the pandemic, they should continue to do so wherever possible.

The Scottish Government has postponed any change to the homeworking guidance until 9 August 2021 and organisations are being asked to support homeworking where possible.

Wales is planning to move to alert level 0 on 7 August 2021, if coronavirus data permits and no new variants are identified. However, the Welsh Government has said that from 7 August 2021 people should continue to work from home wherever possible.

The future

There certainly is cause for optimism, with the roll-out of the 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.

Some organisations may decide to continue with homeworking after restrictions are lifted, given the current high prevalence of coronavirus. Organisations that decide to allow staff to return to the workplace will need to carefully plan their return.

All organisations must keep up with the latest health and safety requirements to keep staff safe in the workplace, even after restrictions are lifted.