Employers fear legal action if working from home made permanent

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City of London

City of London

Employers are bracing for a wave of legal action if the Government introduces new legislation that would make home working permanent post-pandemic.

City lawyers warned that any move to make working from home the “default” option for employees had the potential to significantly increase employment disputes and litigation.

Hannah Netherton, an employment partner at law firm CMS, said: “The introduction of a default right to work from home for office-based workers would be a significant expansion of the current legal regime on flexible working.

“Some employers will find this concerning. What is clear though is that there is no ‘one size fits all’. Some employers are very keen for staff to return to offices, whereas many are embracing a hybrid working model.”

It comes after reports that ministers were drawing up plans to give millions of office staff a “default” right to work from their homes even after Covid restrictions are lifted.

Downing Street said there were no plans to introduce a legal right to home working but confirmed it was consulting on making flexible working a default option.

Sinead Casey, a partner at Magic Circle firm Linklaters, said several clients had already contacted her department to enquire about any legislative change.

She added that new legislation could potentially increase claims against employers, but added that new laws would most likely include provisions around reasonable grounds under which an employer could refuse a request.

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Under current legislation, employees have a right to request flexible working but these requests can be refused by employers for a broad range of reasons, including if the employer does not agree with the idea of flexible working.

Anne Sammon, an employment partner at Pinsent Masons, said: “It will be important to assess how vague the wording is around when an employer can refuse to allow employees to work from home. That scenario could very easily lead to employers facing an influx of claims as a result of any new right to work from home.”

Most major white-collar employers in the UK have outlined plans to move to a hybrid working model post-pandemic, including accountants such as KPMG and law firms such as Slaughter and May.

Danielle Crawford, a senior associate at Winckworth Sherwood said: “The proposal to introduce legislation giving employees a ‘default' right to work from home unless attendance is ‘essential' has the potential to significantly increase employment disputes and litigation.

“The word ‘essential' will be open to interpretation (even if it is defined in the legislation) and this could create tension between employers and employees who have different views on what ‘essential' means.”

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