Downing Street has confirmed the government is considering legislating to make working from home the “default” option by giving employees the right to request it.
Responding to reports that ministers could change the law, Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson said a flexible working taskforce was examining how best to proceed.
“What we’re consulting on is making flexible working a default option unless there are good reasons not to,” they said. That would mirror the approach to other forms of flexible working such as part-time hours.
However, they stressed there would be no legal right to work from home, adding that the prime minister still believed there were benefits to being in the office, including collaboration with colleagues.
Business lobby groups have said many of their members are considering keeping flexible and hybrid approaches adopted during the pandemic. Sixty three per cent of members of the Institute of Directors said they intended to shift to working from home for office-based workers for between one and four days a week.
However, the Confederation of British Industry, another lobby group, said it opposed giving workers an automatic right to work from home.
“The default must remain that businesses control where work is done. While they will need to talk with workers about this, accommodate flexibility where they can and explain these decisions, it can’t be unduly onerous to do so,” said Matthew Percival, the CBI’s director of people and skills. “That’s why a ‘right to request’ approach is the right one.”
The pandemic has ushered in drastically different working arrangements for many office workers, but the plan to legislate to support working from home had already been mooted in the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto.
Labour called on the government to clarify its position. Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, criticised the lack of clarity on plans for office-based workers, and called for stronger rights for staff “so that workers are not pressured or blackmailed back into unsafe workplaces”.
The government’s roadmap for unlocking the UK economy had initially suggested all restrictions would be removed in England from Monday, 21 June. However, that has been extended until at least 19 July to give more time to vaccinate people.
Ministers have been advised that removal of all restrictions on workplaces could be risky, according to a document first reported by Politico. Instead, the government is thought to be considering advice for a hybrid approach, blending continued home working with some time in the office when necessary.
According to reports, the government is considering proposals that would change the law so that employers would have to prove it is essential before being able to insist employees attend the workplace.
“Throughout this crisis this government has failed working people time and time again, from refusing to classify Covid as a serious workplace risk to failing to crack down on unsafe workplaces and rogue employers who have put their staff at risk,” Rayner said.
“As we emerge from this crisis, we cannot have one-sided flexibility that allows employers to dictate terms to their workers when it comes to flexible working arrangements.”
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, which represents human resources professionals, has called for a change in the law to allow employees to request flexible working from the day they start.