Guest contributor: Lee Jefcott, Partner at Brabners.
(Written 05 August 2020)
The dramatically changed working environment during the pandemic has led many to consider whether in fact they wish to go back to the bad old days of pre-pandemic working, with long commutes, pointless meetings, juggling childcare and the stress of long working hours.
A few weeks ago supermarket giant Morrisons announced it would be switching staff at its head office to a four day working week, with overall weekly hours reducing to 37.5 from 40 but maintaining the same salary level. Staff will have to work a six hour shift on one in every four Saturdays but apart from this will benefit from the dream of three day weekends.
Morrisons hailed the new working arrangements as supporting work life balance and an aid to staff retention, making it an attractive place to work. The changes were in the planning stage pre-pandemic but took effect from 27 July in line with plans to return to office based working and have helped to stimulate the debate on what post pandemic working life should be, for those lucky enough to still have jobs.
Post pandemic working is a new hot topic. Employers, whether they like it or not, now have to confront a brave new world. How enthusiastically are we going to encourage office based staff to return? What if these staff do not want to return? The genie is out of the bottle on home working – but is this really a long term proposition for our business? For those businesses who need to reduce costs or are facing a reduced demand for their services, how can they realign their workforce?
In terms of a four day working week, momentum on this picked up during the 2019 election campaign with Labour floating the idea of a 32 hour working week with no loss of pay to be achieved within 10 years. That did not excite voters. However more recently a group of campaigners sent a formal letter to Chancellor Rishi Sunak arguing that a four day working week would, during an economic crisis present the best opportunity for fundamentally restructuring the economy so that work is shared more equally, and in effect to cushion against mass unemployment.
It would also bring benefits of reducing stress levels and allow people to spend more time with their families, something which most people would argue has been beneficial during lockdown. The letter urges Mr Sunak to set up a commission to consider the benefits of this. However faced with an immediate changed post pandemic expectation from employees, and a potential need to save payroll costs, might many other employers seek to follow Morrison’s example, or introduce plans of their own?
The legal position
This would not be a legal blog without a bit of law – so it would be remiss not to add that employers should tread carefully if they are considering plans of this kind. Moving from a five day to a four day working week, whether accompanied by a salary reduction or not, is likely to mean a change in contractual terms. For the change to legally take effect both parties must consent. Employers should consult with their staff and explain the benefits of the proposed changes and the business reasons.
This process itself can be challenging when staff are working remotely but technology has blossomed allowing virtual meetings and presentations to take place. As a prelude good employers should consider testing the appetite for a changed working week, or other changed working patterns with their staff by means of a staff opinion survey which can be conducted online.
Good employers should also consider discussing these changes with any recognised trade union or setting up an employee forum in order to test the proposals and obtain feedback and alternative suggestions.
Taking steps to explain the business reasons behind the proposed changes and to obtain staff feedback will maximise the chances of getting a good level of buy in across the workforce. This should lead to less of a need to consider strategies to enforce any proposed contractual changes without consent. There are a number of legal options which are possible here, none of which are ideal and therefore obtaining staff agreement and buy in should be the priority.
Good Employers checklist:
- Put a plan together – what is the business reason driving the need to make changes?
- Consider a staff opinion survey
- Highlight the positive aspects of the proposed changes
- Consider whether the changes will need employee consent as a change to contractual terms and if necessary take legal advice
- Consult with any recognised trade unions or employee forum
- Harness technology to communicate with staff working remotely
- Put together communications plan including personal contact from line managers
Are you considering post pandemic changes to working arrangements? Please contact Lee Jefcott on firstname.lastname@example.org or 0161 836 8898
Brabners is an independent law firm which helps private, public, third sector organisations and private individuals achieve their goals. They work across multiple sectors, including charity, healthcare, media and technology, recruitment and sport.
With offices in Liverpool, Manchester and Preston and nearly 400 colleagues, they have a reputation built on quality, integrity and results.