London barrister sees 30% increase in flexible working disputes as economy deteriorates

by | Oct 13, 2022

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A London-based barrister, Tahina Akther at Wildcat Law, says, in recent weeks, her firm has seen “a 30% increase in enquiries from employees who accepted jobs on the basis of being able to work flexibly and are now finding that their new employers are changing what that means in practice”.

As the economy deteriorates, Newspage has shared the views of HRs and job experts with IFA Magazine.

Tahina Akther, barrister and co-founder at Wildcat Law: “In recent weeks, we have seen a 30% increase in enquiries from employees who accepted jobs on the basis of being able to work flexibly and are now finding that their new employers are changing what that means in practice. One employee told us that their employer had promised they could choose how many and what days they worked in the office and understood that they had childcare commitments. They are now being told they have to work three set days in the office or face losing their job. With the economy almost certainly entering a recession, many employers are starting to batten down the hatches and they are increasingly ordering their staff to pass down through those hatches into the office first. How this plays out for staff will often depend on what’s stated in their contract but if there are any doubts, they may wish to seek legal advice. For example, even if there has been no formal change to a contract, an email from an employer to an employee announcing they are happy for them to work from home three days a week may lead to an argument that could prove legally binding.”

Sandra Wilson, director of Ipswich-based recruitment and HR firm, Cottrell Moore: “The tide appears to be turning for those employees that have been riding the WFH wave for the past couple of years. Crucially, whatever your employment contract states is what you are contractually obliged to do. If you don’t, you are potentially in breach of contract. Companies will do whatever is needed to keep their businesses flourishing in choppy economic waters and employees that want a contractual arrangement that offers full-time working from home arrangements may struggle at the moment. We seem to have gone full circle. Both employees and employers need to find a compromise or both will have to deal with the harsh consequences that arise.”

Gillian Jones-Williams, managing director of Fareham-based Emerge Development Consultancy: “There is a growing tension and dissonance surrounding the topic of flexible working. Many people are citing that they have a right to work at home but others, particularly senior leadership, feel differently. Currently, it is all about the terms of your contract and many people did not have their contracts changed after lockdown to reflect hybrid working arrangements. They may have something in writing from the employer but not a formal flexible working arrangement. However, best practice would state that if employees can demonstrate that remote work is a valid option due to the fact that they have been doing it for a long time, it should be allowed. Of course, employers could put their foot down and enforce contracts, but this would not bode well for attracting and retaining staff. However winter could deliver a homeworking curveball, as more people may choose to return to the office to reduce their heating bills.”

Louise Burns, director of Tyne and Wear-based Nineteen Recruitment: “I think companies are definitely starting to move the goalposts when it comes to working from home and working flexibly. Having said that, candidates are still king in the job market at the moment so employers are walking a dangerous tightrope if they don’t deliver on flexible working. Employers may well find themselves needing to meet the demands of their workforce in order to retain their staff. Not doing so risks losing them to other employers who will be eagerly waiting in the wings.”

Cheney Hamilton, CEO at Darlington-based flexible working recruiter, Find Your Flex: “The future of work is flexible, but not the kind of flexibility that is referred to by the 4-day week brigade or the flex appeal narrative that pops up when people try to pass off part-time or hybrid working as flexible. Flexible working policies are failing because, fundamentally, they are not flexible and hold zero value to the business and are therefore unsustainable. This is why current flex work policies are not lasting long term, resulting in the issues we see today with ‘backtracking’ on offers and last minute contract changes. I recently spoke to The Senedd and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the future of work about how outcome-based working is the Ground Zero Model for true flexible working. Why? Because it is the only way to prove the business case for offering flexible working opportunities to people, whilst also benefitting the business. When outcome becomes the flexibility driver, businesses get to see the agility of moving from fixed cost models to a variable one. This has the added benefit of helping companies and their staff survive the next pandemic, cost of living crisis, recession, and also results in a massive increase in productivity, inclusivity and diversity of thought and leadership, which sparks growth. A true win win. The world of work has been looking at how we work through the wrong lens. We need to make the adjustment now from ‘flexible’ to ‘outcome’ and reap the benefit of reducing overheads, thus realising an increase in outputs and growth, which will revitalise a burnt-out and undervalued job market.”

Sam Alsop-Hall, Chief Strategy Officer at Birmingham-based healthcare and NHS recruiter, Woodrow Mercer Healthcare: “The Great Renegotiation has begun. Some employers are finding that productivity rates and business effectiveness are being damaged by employees who work entirely remotely or spend most of the week at home. The initial benefits of reduced travel costs, childcare flexibility and finishing on time for the gym have sometimes been abused and replaced by employees going for haircuts during the day, having a lie-in beyond their start time, catching up on TV or even no longer sending their children to nursery and multi-tasking instead. Something has to give, but contractually some employees now have the “right” to be 100% remote. If a contractual agreement has been made, lucky you, as you’re protected. But if you’re just pushing your luck with WFH then the game is up as employers push to protect their businesses during very difficult trading conditions. The Great Renegotiation is here so get a new agreement, leave your job or don’t be surprised if you’re no longer flavour of the months and flying up the career ladder.”

Emma Summers, founder of Bath and Bristol-based Juice Recruitment: “Employees, these days, are looking at their overall packages and not just salaries. If they have the option of flexible working, money is not such a motivator. If they don’t, then pay rises in line with inflation will definitely be on the agenda. Utilitarian employers who turn their backs on flexible working will be condemned to utilitarian employees who focus on pay and pay alone.”

Jill Cotton, Career Trends expert at Glassdoor: “Companies should not be afraid of flexible work. Glassdoor analysis of hundreds of thousands of reviews by UK employees found that workers who discuss flexibility and hybrid work are significantly more satisfied than their counterparts. So much so that employees without flexibility are twice as likely to apply for a new job. With hiring likely to remain challenging through this year and into 2023, offering flexibility will help to attract and retain talent. One in 2 people working flexibly say they are more productive, and the vast majority (64%) say they have better work-life balance and are generally happier. But flexible working needs to be properly supported by employers as our studies also show that hybrid employees are at risk of disconnection and career stagnation. There is no single model for hybrid or flexible work: success depends on creating a framework that carefully considers the needs of each individual business and its employees.”

Karen Watkins, founder of Somerset-based HR experts, Rowan Consulting: “Positively, we’re still seeing clients embracing the hybrid model as it’s working both for them and their staff, but our advice for both parties would still be to get any contractual changes agreed in writing. 90% of the time, it will all come down to the contractual paperwork. From an employee’s perspective, if you agree something with your employer on any change relating to your employment contract, then ensure you get it in writing. If you have nothing in writing and they change their mind, it’s your word against theirs and contractual agreements will usually stand.”

Martin Delany, CEO of Glasgow-based WFH software platform, BuzzHubs: “It may be disappointing but certainly not surprising that as the balance of power shifts from employees to employers, there are changes in the terms and conditions being offered to staff. The fact is, though, that the world of work has changed and those adopting a 100% work from the office strategy will see their best people vote with their feet and leave. Numerous studies indicate working from home and hybrid working can actually help productivity, not harm it, yet there are still a lot of people making decisions based on a perception rather than the reality. It’s possible to achieve a much higher productivity level with flexible working, but only if you re-look at how you work and embrace new technologies that are designed specifically to help companies with people working from different locations. Those companies that are risking lower staff morale and a resulting decrease in productivity by reducing flexibility would be better placed finding a solution to make hybrid/WFH effective, and that isn’t operating as they did before but signing up for Teams and Slack and hoping for the best.”

Kieran Boyle, MD of Gloucester-based CKB Recruitment: “We’re continuing to see candidates primarily looking for hybrid employers and don’t think that will change anytime soon despite the cost of living crisis and deep uncertainty around the economy. The pandemic was a catalyst of fundamental change in the UK workforce but there will almost certainly be some confrontations between employers and employees in the months ahead.”

Jo Ferreday, Director of Market Harborough-based, Sheer Edge: “The main reason I co-founded Sheer Edge was due to the fact that flexible working was not a viable option when I had my son almost seven years ago. Given that the pandemic proved many individuals could manage their working time effectively in a remote/flexible capacity, I really struggle to see why employers would renege on supporting their teams to work in a way that would suit them and ultimately the business they work for. High staff morale equals productive teams equals a profitable business. It’s a simple equation in my book so why revert to Dickensian work practices? All of our team work remotely and we are proud to be able to support this nature of flexible working for all.”

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