Thomas Mansfield Solicitors

Has the WFH bubble burst?

Six months or so ago, there were predictions of widespread downsizing in commercial property. Businesses that had always seen the office as the beating heart of their operation would move towards a model built around remote working and greater flexibility for employees. Business premises would become a fraction of their former size, or obsolete. That’s where many thought we were heading.

For some, that prediction has played out. But the idea that cities’ business districts would remain as eerily quiet as they have been during lockdowns, may be wide of the mark. Working from home has opened employers’ and employees’ eyes to different ways of working, and it has had many positives. But it’s not for everyone. There is a sense that for some people, homeworking has had its day. It’s now time to get back to ‘work’.

Rishi Sunak highlighted (in The Telegraph) great benefits that come from a workforce being together in one place:

You can’t beat the spontaneity, the team building, the culture that you create in a firm or an organisation from people actually spending physical time together.”

Those were the Chancellor’s words as he warned that abandoning offices in favour of full-time homeworking could see employees leaving to join competitors. He said the office environment is particularly important for younger workers who want to understand how a company works.

The message appears to be that we should try to “get back to a good degree of that” (although hybrid working will still suit some organisations). And, as businesses look ahead, there are some big decisions to make and a significant amount of management to be involved in keeping a workforce happy and motivated as we (dare I say it) begin to emerge from lockdown three. Will workers be reluctant to return to the office? How should their concerns be dealt with? Will workers object to a permanent ‘work-from-home’ arrangement? Is there a middle ground that could suit everyone?

The crux of this is that a workforce is made up of individuals, each with their own views, circumstances, and personal challenges and ambitions. A stark decision either way – close the office, or insist that everyone returns – will divide the crowd. So it’s likely that many employers will opt for a halfway house; one that sees the continuation of the office base, with the flexibility that comes from remote working.

In any situation involving change, taking account of workers’ views and listening to their concerns is key. Employers that force workplace changes through are likely to not only come up against resistance and ill-feeling, but also employment law problems that come from not dealing reasonably with individuals and their personal situations. It’s so important to engage with staff. Involve them as much as possible in decisions. Listen, and take their views onboard. If someone objects to your plan, try to understand why and do what you can to make things work for them. Essentially, treat people fairly.

There can be a difficult line to tread between the needs of your business and the needs and wishes of employees. Where these clash, it’s essential to think calmly and reasonably about the best course of action. We have recently advised a number of businesses that have had to make really tough decisions about their future and some have struggled with the idea of having to consider putting the interests of the business before those of employees. But that is sometimes the commercial necessity; employers are running a business and while staff are front and centre in that, occasionally (and only where there’s been a thorough assessment and acceptance of risk), decisions that favour the business over individuals need to be taken.

So, where finances dictate that a business’ city-centre office can’t be sustained, that may in some circumstances justify its closure and a requirement for staff to work from home. More likely, a business would downsize so that the office-workers at least had a base. But the point is that an employer can legitimately rely on a good business reason for making a particular decision.

Avoiding discrimination will be one major concern in all of this, and an employer should do everything reasonable to ensure that someone with a protected characteristic is not being treated less favourably than others because of that characteristic. Specific legal advice on your particular situation will be vital in ensuring that employment law risks are identified, mitigated and, ideally, avoided.

To speak to us about your employment issues, whether to do with strategic business decisions or a particular issue involving an employee, get in touch with me Meredith Hurst  or another member of our Employment Law team (0330 311 1950).