The changes that the COVID-19 pandemic imposed on the world of work, and the new hybrid workplace that is expected to emerge in 2021, will keep legal and HR teams busy during the year ahead. This is the first in a series of blog posts on what to expect in 2021, looking at some of the anticipated developments and offering our views on how employers should respond.

In many countries, rules or guidance have required employees to work from home during the pandemic, where possible. This has resulted in some employees working remotely for almost a year, and has prompted employers to rethink their previous position on agile working – either as a result of workforce pressure for greater flexibility, a new-found realisation that remote working can be a success, or in some cases driven by a desire to save costs. Approaches differ, but we expect to see significantly more remote working arrangements than was the case before the pandemic. For many businesses the hybrid workplace (a combination of working from the company’s premises and remotely) will become the “new normal”.

We look ahead at what the future of work holds and how the new workplace will be in our latest Q&A 'The hybrid workplace – how homeworking is becoming the new normal and what it means for employers', which addresses a variety of issues, including:

  • managing health and safety (including the important topic of mental health);
  • compliance with working time regulations, which can give rise to significant challenges in many European jurisdictions;
  • managing home working costs;
  • working from home when 'home' is another jurisdiction, potentially giving rise to tax, labour law and regulatory issues;
  • rethinking the office space and access to the workplace;
  • adjusting HR policies and processes; and
  • the future role of governments, local authorities and social partners.

In many respects, the challenges that employers have faced over the past year may become harder to manage as they navigate the complexities of a workforce split between home and the office. Thought must be given to how to maintain a sense of engagement and a spirit of collaboration when there is less uniformity to working arrangements; how to ensure that networking and mentoring opportunities are not harder to access for employees who prefer the home-working environment; and how to manage risk in the altered workplace. 

The changes to our working environment arrived quickly last year and inevitably required a degree of ‘fire-fighting’ – reacting fast to the circumstances that were unfolding, with the expectation that any changes would be temporary. As we embrace the realisation that some changes are here to stay, 2021 will provide an opportunity to reflect on whether policies and processes need to adjust to reflect the altered world of work. For example, do confidentiality and information security protocols need to be permanently changed; does there need to be a renewed emphasis on whistleblowing and other risk management policies; and does the messaging and training on sexual harassment need to be updated to reflect the different types of behaviour (non-physical, but equally unacceptable) that can arise when remote working is prevalent?

One thing that is clear in this complex landscape is that planning and communication with employees is key. Employers should be looking ahead to what their workplace will look like after the pandemic – a balance must be struck between managing employee expectations and what works best from a commercial perspective. That said, it may be prudent to make only interim decisions now, given that flexibility will be crucial for helping businesses to navigate any future unexpected challenges that may arise.

This blog post is part of the series 'WorkLife 2.0: what to expect in 2021' in our WorkLife 2.0 initiative, which considers the lessons learnt during the COVID-19 pandemic that may transform the future of work, and reflects on what the new working environment will look like. Future blog posts will look at topics such as health and safety obligations and the duty of care owed to employees who are returning to the office, as well as diversity, protection of workers, the employment consequences of Brexit and whistleblowing.