The pandemic, as disruptive as it has been, has kickstarted an arguably much-needed revolution in the business world. Are bosses or their teams in a hurry to return to the often restrictive ‘bums on seats, 9-5, Monday to Friday’ approach to the working day?
A recent poll of 2,000 UK workers by Theta Global Advisors found 57% do not want to go back to a normal way of working in an office environment. 65% still don’t feel comfortable on public transport, while 52% say they enjoy a better work-life balance after working from home for so many months.
‘Hybrid’ and ‘flexible’ working are the two hot topics as workplaces begin to reopen as office, in-store and on-site working become available options once more.
How do you choose the best route for your business and prepare to welcome your employees back to the workplace after working from home? Here are the main points to consider:

What’s the difference between hybrid and flexible working?
The two terms are often used interchangeably but there are important differences.
Hybrid working is focused on the business needs. The proposal is put through by the business and can include arrangements such as 50% of an employee’s time being spent in the office, or working from home the majority of the time, with a requirement to attend team meetings in person, for example. It could apply to different staff in different ways and therefore differing contracts will be needed. This type of arrangement would mean a change of contract and a consultation must be carried out in advance.
Flexible working centres around the individual employee’s needs. Many people’s situations have changed after Covid – grandparents might no longer be able to help with childcare, there may be illness in the family or perhaps an elderly relative now lives with them, meaning they need to be home more. It may involve a member of staff requesting a change in their hours or working days, perhaps working fewer days or spreading their hours across the week, if they are not full time.
Any member of staff can request flexible working after 26 weeks of employment.

Is the employer obliged to allow flexible or hybrid working?
Firstly, every company should have a flexible working policy. Many employees could be feeling anxious about returning to their place of work after a year of lockdowns and restrictions. They might have adapted to a new, improved work/life balance and the idea of changing that could be daunting or even demotivating. Being open to some ‘give and take’ so that they retain a style of working that suits them better but also benefits the business can work in everyone’s favour.
What’s more, if they have shown they can perform just as well if not better when working from home, it’s a wise move in terms of productivity to make some changes.

What are the main benefits of adapting the way your business works?
The ability to work from home more or work flexible hours has many obvious benefits for employees. Less time and money spent on travel and a greater ability to plan their work around their lives rather than vice versa can greatly impact happiness and wellbeing. The option to also use office facilities can help them feel connected to their colleagues and the company itself.
For businesses, happier staff invariably equals more productive, happier, healthier and less absent staff – all useful contributors to staff retention and attraction.
It can also present the opportunity to downsize costly office space, saving on overheads and freeing up cash in the business to reward employees, especially over the tough year many of us have had.

When and how do I plan for these changes?
It is important to begin planning sooner rather than later and a proper consultation is essential.
• Start by communicating with your team to gauge their feelings and concerns.
• Be empathetic to the fact that their lives might have changed a great deal over the past year.
• Reassure them that you are doing everything in your power to ensure they can return safely. You will get more value from working with people and demonstrating a genuine duty of care.
You might want to consider temporary hybrid working to ease people back in gently. For example, you could introduce a ‘2 days a week at home, 3 days a week in the office’ working week to start with. This slow approach to normality can help avoid pushbacks from staff – remember that happy staff are more productive and less absent staff.
A great way to really involve your team in their return is an engagement survey. This would help to uncover issues such as general wellbeing, experiences of working from home, what communication was like when they were not in the office, and any concerns they have about returning.
This type of survey is immensely useful in helping workers to feel valued, supported and listened to.

What do I need to consider when implementing working from home as part of a long-term option?
So far, working from home has been more of a necessity than a choice. If it is going to be a permanent part of the way your business works, there are some points to bear in mind.
Working environment
Ensure that as far as possible, your employees’ home environments and equipment meet health and safety standards and allow them to carry out their job effectively. This may involve a home risk assessment and DSE which may lead to paying for equipment such as desks, lighting and supportive chairs.
Working from home policy
Working from home policies should also cover areas such as ensuring the welfare of your team via regular check-ins and keeping them updated.
When you cannot work at home
Consider, too, that some roles cannot be carried out at home and that you may need to retain some specific office or workshop space for those employees. It may be that you need to look at restructuring and re-evaluating job tasks to suit different individuals’ situations. This may dictate who does and does not come into the office/premises and a full job consultation could be necessary.

What if we cannot find a way of working that suits everybody?
Consultations and clear communication is vital for understanding concerns and preferences. It is possible to provide bespoke contracts for different people but whatever terms are offered to them must work for the team and business as a whole too.
Despite your best efforts, it is not always easy to implement changes that everyone is happy with.
If you have done all you can to meet the needs of a member of staff in a way that upholds their rights, and the member of staff does not consent to it, the employer may need to resort to dismissing the employee and offering to re-engage them on the new terms.

A minefield of consultations and changing contracts?
Rest assured, you will not be the only business owner feeling apprehensive about these changes.
It is really important that this process is handled fairly and in accordance with the law but also in a way that allows your business to continue trading profitably.
Working with an HR professional can take the stress and uncertainty out of the whole procedure. An experienced HR consultant can manage every stage from helping you plan the reopening of your business, devising, implementing and evaluating staff surveys and consultations, and overseeing all elements of contract amendments, to the letter of the law.
If you are considering the best options for your company and people, BPHR can take you through each stage, step by step and help make it a seamless transition.