Ministers have rejected the idea of a post-pandemic “right to work from home” but are still proceeding with a less comprehensive shift towards flexible working in the future.
Downing Street denied a report in the Daily Mail that it was drawing up a blueprint “to give workers the right to work from home forever and make it illegal to force them back into the office”.
While the government has asked people to work from home where possible during the pandemic, this will not be permanent, Number 10 said.
But it added that it was pressing ahead with a pre-pandemic plan first announced in the 2019 Conservative election manifesto to “encourage flexible working and consult on making it the default unless employers have good reasons not to”.
Any changes arising from this consultation will be incorporated into an employment bill in the next Parliamentary session.
Workers already have the right to request flexible working if they have worked for the same employer for 26 weeks. Ministers are considering cutting that threshold to include more recent hires.
The government defines flexible working as an array of measures, including part-time working, flexitime and working from home. It has so far not specified what would constitute “good reasons” for employers to block requests.
The Trades Union Congress said any new right should allow employers to refuse only in exceptional circumstances. However, business groups want managers to maintain the flexibility to turn down unviable requests.
Business groups have supported the shift in emphasis to flexible working but want the final decisions left to the employee and employer rather than the government.
“It is for the individual businesses to decide what is right for their staff. We favour a move to flexible working but it would not be right for the government to take the decision out of businesses’ hands,” said Roger Barker, director of policy at the Institute of Directors.
Tamzen Isaacson, chief executive of the UK Management Consultancies Association, said flexible working was here to stay “but it needs to be coupled with meeting client needs or client requirements”.
Most businesses plan to implement some degree of flexible working in future although there are a few companies taking a stronger line on bringing people back to the office in the medium term.
Meanwhile, a government-led task force is set to urge companies to treat staff the same whether they are working at home or in the office as the debate over working patterns after the pandemic continues, according to those familiar with the plans.
The Flexible Working Taskforce has been consulting with business leaders and trade unions to agree official guidance on hybrid working, a practice made widespread by government advice during the three coronavirus lockdowns.
The workforce was asked to produce “non-binding advice” for employers on best practice and is due to report within the next six months.
Despite the government’s commitment to flexible working there are concerns that companies will treat workers in the office or at home differently, creating a “two-tier” workforce. Other potential problems include home workers being excluded from important meetings or missing out on in-office training.
The TUC has warned of an “emerging class divide” between higher paid homeworkers who plan to continue doing their job remotely at least some of the time, and working-class occupations where people have little access to any form of flexible working.
Additional reporting by Delphine Strauss