Firms warned they face walking a discrimination tightrope as they plot a workplace return

With the UK moving to the next stage in its route map towards a return to the new normal on Monday, employers have been warned a switch a hybrid working may well come at a cost.

The sudden switch to remote operation in March 2020 resulted in a seismic change in working practices and the move had been seen as a success in many areas and for many roles.

It has prompted some in the London market and insurers across the world to announce they will be implementing a move to hybrid working with staff not required to return to the office full time. For some it will not require a return to the office at all.

With the ability to reopen the workplace now on the cards employers are looking to put in place systems to ensure a safe return to the office.

However, the return looks set to be anything but simple. A recent poll found 65% of UK employees believe that bosses should have the right to mandate that all staff who return to work should be vaccinated. Over a third of those workers say they would refuse to return to work if a colleague was refusing to be vaccinated.

If the vaccination debate was not bad enough, there have also been warnings this week that a switch to hybrid working may well leave firms open to discrimination accusations in the future.

While the move to remote working and allowing staff the choice where possible as to when or if they come into the office has been viewed as an enlightened move to a new normal, which is also likely to significantly cut down on workplace costs, it seems it does not come without risk.

Legal and HR experts have warned that they see significant problems in the hybrid approach, the most important being:

  • Staff that decided to work from home will miss out on the access to their line and senior management their peers in the office will enjoy.
  • Those in the office will have greater access to the support of colleagues and management, than those working remotely.
  • It is likely that when promotions become available those who are in the office will have a far higher chance of winning the promotion than those who are “out of sight out of mind” working remotely.
  • If given the option it is likely female staff will be keener to work remotely either full time or for longer periods of the week than their male peers which may push back diversity in the workplace.

Employers may then find themselves facing discrimination claims from staff who work remotely should they feel their career progression has been damaged by the choice not to be in the office five days a week.

As such, risk managers and insurers may well be faced with calls for liability covers that will protect firms from the new employment risks that the hybrid model is set to throw up, not to mention issues around the vaccination or non-vaccination of staff in the workplace.

While the move to remote working and allowing staff the choice where possible as to when or if they come into the office has been viewed as an enlightened move to a new normal, which is also likely to significantly cut down on workplace costs, it seems it does not come without risk.

Jon Guy, Emerging risks

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