Elaine Huttley, Employment Partner at Irwin Mitchell considers the challenges for manufacturers of hybrid working.

As a result of the global pandemic, many organisations – including manufacturers – are having a major re-think about how they want their workplaces to function long-term. This includes considering hybrid working models which give eligible staff the option of combining working from home with going into the workplace.

The benefits of hybrid working are well-known e.g. flexibility for staff and employers alike. However, in sectors such as manufacturing where a large proportion of the workforce is required to be on-site (e.g. factory or shop floor workers), how might hybrid working be successfully rolled out? What might some of the challenges be?

Firstly, it’s worth noting that there is no “one size fits all” model for hybrid working – what will work best will be dependent on each individual business. A key challenge for manufacturing employers therefore will be deciding which roles will be eligible for hybrid working and which are not.  Some roles will simply not be eligible for hybrid working e.g. those where an on-site presence is required. However, there may be roles that are less clear-cut and have elements of on-site and office-based working. Clear rules will be needed for such employees, or groups of employees, to specify the number of days, or a proportion of time, that must be spent working on-site or at home, or required attendance for key meetings. For some office-based staff it may be possible to give complete flexibility.

With some employees eligible for hybrid working and some not, a further challenge will be to avoid a “two-tier system” emerging. For example, on-site staff may feel that they are missing out on perceived benefits offered to hybrid workers, creating potential for division. However, those working from home will not be able to access traditional on-site benefits such as a subsidised staff canteen, parking etc. Clear and managed communication with staff will therefore be key to avoiding any such division and allaying concerns.

Further, manufacturing employers will need to be mindful to the risk of employment claims when excluding roles or refusing requests to work under a hybrid model. A request to work under a hybrid model is essentially a flexible working request which may qualify for consideration under the statutory flexible working scheme. (Any employee who has been employed for at least 26 weeks and has not made a flexible working request in the last 12 months is eligible to make a request under the statutory scheme).

When refusing a statutory flexible working request, employers must cite one or more of the eight statutory business reasons for refusal (which includes, for example, impact on quality and performance, inability to meet customer demand) or may face a claim. Employees making a request may also be protected under the Equality Act 2010, which could also give rise to a potential discrimination claim if refused without proper justification - for example, an employee with childcare or other caring responsibilities requesting to work flexibly for this reason. If manufacturing employers are seeing an influx of requests from employees wanting to work more flexibly, it will be easier to justify a refusal where there are clear requirements to be on-site. However, as above, employers will need to have regard to any requests where elements of the role that can potentially be completed off-site. This is particularly the case if employees have been carrying out these elements from home successfully during the pandemic.

If employers are considering implementing hybrid working across groups of employees (i.e. as a default working arrangement, rather than just responding to individual flexible working requests) it will also need to ensure that employees are not adversely affected as a result of unintended consequences. Hybrid working could indirectly discriminate against some employee groups. For example, young people could be more likely to rent, which may mean they have less space for a safe work set up. If such employees are required to work from home in these circumstances (rather it being an option), this could lead to indirect discrimination claims unless employers can objectively justify this requirement. Employers should therefore undertake equality impact assessments to identify and minimise impact before rolling out hybrid working policies and consider any further support they can offer to impacted individuals or groups.

Finally, in the context of the Government’s pledge to make flexible working the “default” position, we could see a narrowing of the circumstances in which employers can refuse flexible working requests in the future. Indeed, neighbouring countries such as Ireland are one step ahead of the UK with plans to legislate for the right to request remote working and introduce a code of practice on the right to disconnect for employees. There have been calls for similar rights to be introduced in the UK and we will of course continue to monitor the position and provide updates. In the meantime, employers should be prepared to move with these times and to think seriously and strategically about flexible working.

To assist employers in doing so, we have created an agile/hybrid working toolkit to help organisations plan for and embed agile or hybrid working and which includes: -

  • A detailed checklist of issues employers need to consider before deciding on and implementing a policy
  • Precedent agile / hybrid working policy which employers can adapt for their organisation
  • Precedent contractual clauses covering: changes to working arrangements, data protection, insurance, expenses, health and safety and more
  • Letter to staff introducing the hybrid working policy and explaining how to apply
  • FAQs on agile/hybrid working and flexible working which explains some of the trickier issues such as where is the employee’s place of work

Further information on our toolkits can be accessed here.

Over the coming months and in a rapidly changing world, it will be interesting to see how hybrid working plays out in the workplace and particularly so for those in the manufacturing sector.