By Nicola Callaghan, Managing Director at HR Caddy
The long six weeks holidays are at an end. Unlike previous years though, something is very different about the return to school for many employees this year, which is likely to have an impact on the operations of employers in the weeks and months ahead.
The last 18 months have been a whirlwind of change for employers as they grapple with a significant change in workplace practices and employee expectations.
For much of this period, many employees – particularly those in ‘white-collar’ jobs – had the advantage of working from home, although at times the challenge of home schooling made the juggle between work and home life complex.
However, the end of summer reflects a marked change in both childcare provisions, as children return to schools and workers, many of whom are required to return to the office (at least part-time in many cases).
This situation certainly poses a challenge for employees, as they once again get used to having to manage care for youngsters around the regular working hours of their job.
For many, they may once again be able to use childcare services, such as a childminder, while others may have family help at hand.
However, employers may have to contend with the fact that some employees no longer want or are able to manage the burden of childcare costs or spend less time with their families.
Common practice within most workplaces at the moment is favouring a phased return to the office or place of work, where feasible.
This may include allowing staff to work some days at home and others at the office, or in some cases going completely remote.
Other workplaces, however, have had different experiences and are keen to see a full return to the regular work environment for most, if not all, employees.
This is likely to spark conflict between employees and employers, so what can be done?
An increasing number of workplaces are allowing employees to adapt their working hours to fit their needs – even where they continue to work in an office or on-site.
The inflexibility of many school hours and their marrying to regular ‘9-5’ working hours have often been a challenge for working parents and so a more flexible approach that allows for adaptation to work hours to suit an employee’s needs may offer a fairer solution for those employers who foresee or desire a return to the workplace.
In most cases, employers are requesting that employees try to fulfil as many ‘regular’ working hours as possible, while giving their employees flexibility, here and there to manage other aspects of their lives.
The existing flexible working legislation allows for employees to request greater flexibility within their working hours, but of course, employers must be given the opportunity to review and refuse a request if it does not meet the commercial requirements of the business.
Although there have been rumours of stricter flexible working arrangements, with greater power given to employees to change their hours of work or request remote working with less recourse for employers, the Government has said it does not intend to legislate for this at the moment.
The start of the school term often leads to a rise in staff absences as employees support their children back to the classroom after the long six weeks holiday.
However, this return to school is likely to see a more significant spike, as employees themselves get used to having to once again manage the school run and childcare alongside their own return to the workplace.
In many cases, a degree of flexibility can be given if a person has to support their children, perhaps taking extra time in the morning to start work, or having to leave early to look after an ill or upset child.
We suspect, however, that employers are likely to see more challenges as parents get used to regular work patterns, the commute and dealing with the other aspects of spending less time at home with their family.
Initially, it may make sense to give at least some leeway to employees that are struggling, especially if their performance is otherwise exemplary.
This may offer a good juncture for employers to step in and have discussions with an employee to find out how they can be better supported.
Longer-term though, if an employer spots a longer pattern of absence or lateness, it is challenged and the situation does not improve then further steps may need to be taken.
In order to successfully challenge this behaviour and take appropriate actions, it is important that employers have up to date contracts and employee handbooks to refer to, which clearly outline the expectations of staff.
If these were updated mid-pandemic to offer greater flexibility but have not been updated since it is important that employers take steps to review and amend their contracts once again to reflect current working conditions.
As with any absences, employers should already have an established policy, which outlines how it will investigate and deal with this issue.
It is important that employees are aware of this policy and it is followed closely by employers so that a decision to punish or dismiss an employee cannot be challenged at a tribunal.
Employers that are facing issues with employees and their childcare arrangements should seek help, especially if it is having a noticeable effect on productivity or relations with clients and customers.
Speaking with an HR expert may help to create policies that balance the best interests of employers and their workforce, or if suitable arrangements cannot be reached, help with the dismissal of employees who are unable to fulfil their role – although this is often the last resort for most workplaces.
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