When former estate agent Alice Thompson asked her employers whether she could finish work earlier to pick up her kids, they refused to accommodate her.
The mum subsequently left her job, later taking action against her old workplace.
This week, Thompson was awarded £185,000 by an employment tribunal after her employer failed to consider flexible working which would’ve seen Thompson either doing a four-day work week or starting earlier to finish early.
The tribunal awarded her the fee after finding the firm’s failure to consider more flexible working put Thompson at a disadvantage. The judge upheld her claim and awarded her almost £185,000 for loss of earnings, loss of pension contributions, injury to feelings and interest.
In a post-lockdown world, even as the Covid pandemic continues, many employees are now finding themselves being asked to get back into the office or workplace.
But some people are still struggling with parenting or caring duties, health vulnerabilities or mental health issues rooted in the pandemic. And plenty more would simply prefer to work more flexibly, especially now they’ve demonstrated they’re able to during the past year and a half of working from home.
So, can your employer force you to come in? And what are your options?
Greg Burgess, an employment partner at city law firm DMH Stallard, explains how legislation supports work from home requests and why the law may change to give employees “more control over where they work”.
“Many employers are currently grappling with new working models and discussing with staff different forms of hybrid model, with a split between working partly in the office and partly at home. There is undoubtedly a concern amongst some employers that staff will increasingly want to work permanently from home,” he tells HuffPost UK.
“As the law currently stands, the right to make a formal request to work flexibly remains the mechanism for employees to do this. This right has been part of our legal framework for many years, having first been introduced in 2003.”
Any employee can currently make a request to work permanently from home, Burgess adds, but there is a crucial point to note.
“Employers merely have to consider that request – they do not have to agree to it. If the request is going to be turned down, then the employer has to have a legitimate reason falling into one of the categories set out in the legislation.
“The employer will need to rely on one of the legal grounds, such as the impact agreeing to the request would have on the performance of the team or the business, or the inability to reorganise the employee’s work amongst colleagues.”
So that’s what the law says. But what can you do if your company isn’t playing ball and granting your WFH wishes?
“Penalties for employers who do not properly consider requests are modest, unless the employee can establish that turning down the request was part of some discriminatory treatment linked to their sex, age, disability, race etc,” Burgess explains.
“Take the example of a working mum who makes a flexible working request to reduce her days and work more from home. If that request is turned down by the employer without properly considering it, then they could be facing a direct or indirect sex discrimination claim.”
Thankfully, we are seeing more bosses warm to the idea of hybrid working and flexible patterns. “In practice, employers often try to agree flexible working arrangements with their staff,” says Burgess.
“In the past, employers would rarely get challenged when they turn down an individual’s flexible working request. Whilst the law currently remains weighted in the employer’s favour, it seems quite possible that the law may change over the coming years to allow staff more control over where they work.”