UK employment law has changed; Leaders must consider requests for hybrid working or risk loss of talent. How can embracing technology help?

By Karl Simons OBE, Chief Futurist at FYLD

On the 6th April 2024, the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) bill became law, meaning millions of UK workers now have greater flexibility over where and when they work. More opportunities for hybrid work is good news for employees, but for high-risk industries where critical maintenance requires round the clock attention from skilled workers, will managers face a surge in risk areas such as project delays, rework or even health and safety incidents?

What’s new?

As of this month, any employee has the right to request flexible working from day one of their employment in the UK, regardless of their position, the sector they work in or the nature of their responsibilities. For many years it has been the legal right of a job candidate to withhold personal information in an interview such as details of a disability or their age for example.

In a similar vein, prospective employees now don’t need to disclose their wishes for flexibility before joining a company. With this law enforced, they can request it from day one of their employment without explaining why they want or need it.

New pressure will be applied to make sure employers consult with the employee before rejecting their flexible working request. The UK Government’s Department for Business and Trade (DBT) recently commented, “We hope that these changes will support constructive conversations between employers and employees about different working arrangements, and how they may work better for both parties’ benefit.”

Evolving ways of working

Historically, sectors such as utilities and construction have been considered high-risk with time-critical, labour-intensive and collaborative work taking place that requires employees to be based on site. Viewed as slow-adopters of new working practices and technological advances, many companies in these sectors have relied upon paper planning documents and physical, time-consuming site visits from senior staff.

If we take a look back at the last few years however, we’ve seen a major shift in the way that the whole world views the world of work, triggered by the global COVID-19 pandemic. News of the virus and subsequent lockdowns to maintain social distancing brought immediate and unprecedented shutdowns of many construction sites or delays in planned road, water or power maintenance work.

As a result, many companies operating within these sectors were forced to embrace digital solutions to support remote working to continue critical operations, and protect long-term growth.

Recent statistics back up the notion that following the pandemic, the construction industry in particular transformed typical ways of working. A recent survey from the UK’s Association for Project Management (APM) found that the construction industry currently has the highest percentage of project managers working fully remote among all sectors in the UK.

The survey found that 54% of British project managers in construction are currently working entirely remotely, which is a significant increase since October 2021 when it was at 16%. This stat demonstrates that the number of project managers working remotely has more than tripled since the end of the COVID pandemic.

Similarly in the U.S., the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 26 million Americans work at home at least part of the time, and 29 percent of workers could work from home in their primary job.

Hidden risk

These figures emphasise a current trend in that senior project managers and site supervisors are already adept at remote working, efficiently combining office, in-site and home working to suit their own needs. The APM’s survey suggests this has had a positive impact on project managers’ health and wellbeing, with 82% saying they feel happy or very happy with this flexible arrangement.

However, with the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) bill, comes with added complexities to the world of work for these critical industries. Under the new law, employees of all competencies and seniorities will be afforded greater rights to request flexible working, including field workers who hold responsibilities on site.

This could give rise to project managers and site supervisors who act as line managers and oversee employee performance, site safety and project efficiency, inundated with requests for home/hybrid working, practically overnight. As the law states, an employee now has the right to request this flexible working arrangement without disclosing the reason why, and it may fall on a busy period for the business or at a time where other skilled staff are off or remote working. Could this lead to sites where safety is paramount being understaffed?

Some business leaders have already voiced concerns that the new law will lead to issues for employers such as managers being unable to reorganise work among existing staff, which could have a detrimental effect on the business’ ability to meet customer demand or fulfil project deadlines, which will impact quality and performance, and/or lead to insufficient levels of work during the periods the employee wishes to work.

The bill also raises an important question around staff retention. Never mind the potentially negative impact on business performance, what about employee morale? If excessive flexible working requests are denied this may lead to a drop in employee job satisfaction. A worker with low to mid-level experience may believe they can perform some of their responsibilities from home, filling out administrative paperwork for example. If their requests are denied; they may feel unheard, unsupported and unappreciated. This could lead to a wave of resignations as skilled workers look to competitors who are more flexible and digital-centric.

For sectors such as construction or utilities, any mismanagement of employee flexible working requests could have a serious impact on the business. With the new law now in effect, project managers and site supervisors need to consider the wider impact of more flexible working within their team. They need to ask important questions such as whether a significant uptick in flexible working could lead to a rise in health and safety incidents for example, or could critical projects become delayed due to a skills shortage leading to reputational damage and a loss of customer contracts? What would be the financial impact of this loss?

A balancing act

Before anyone in a leadership role reading this begins to panic, I must say; there is an excellent opportunity for improvement here. By balancing the operational needs of the business, including site safety and team efficiency, with the personal appetite for greater flexibility from a digital-savvy workforce, businesses can protect efficiency, profitability, safety, as well as attract, retain and nurture their talent. To unlock these benefits, businesses must embrace technology.

Of course, there are many businesses who want to do the right thing by accommodating the needs of their employees and see this is an opportunity to enhance their culture and improve the health, happiness and well-being of their workforce, but it must be well-considered and planned out in advance.

For sectors such as construction, water, or utilities, offering remote or hybrid work opportunities can be a key differentiator as an employer, helping to attract a new generation of skilled workers. In the long-term this will help companies foster a positive, diverse and innovative workplace culture.

It may also support employee retention with today’s workforce considering the offer of remote working policies equal to an 8% pay rise, according to research conducted by Stanford University, the University of Chicago and Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico.

The power of advanced tech

Using transformative technology, driven by Artificial Intelligence such as natural language processing, computer vision or machine learning, solutions such as FYLD have already proven this can be done.

One example of this is our partnership with Trinity, a company responsible for delivering a West Midlands-based works programme for Cadent Gas, the UK’s largest gas distribution network. By partnering with FYLD, project managers and site supervisors acquired greater site visibility, allowing them to prioritise sites and spot job blockers in advance. They also benefited from increased transparency in field crew start times, ensuring no impact on scheduling and productivity.

Over a six-month period, FYLD reduced the average time of a risk assessment to just three minutes, saving 1,272 fieldworker hours, delivering time stamped Video Risk Assessments and end of shift wrap up’s at the point of work, gave remote managers visibility of start/ finish times, which led to a 12.5% productivity gain. This also offered project managers flexible, accurate and effective management of field teams, with FYLD rated 4.8/5 by LDPs for app usability.

Ultimately, FYLD allowed the company to revolutionise its ways of working, becoming far more productive, safer and sustainable. through a new remote working system. With these proven benefits project managers and site supervisors are empowered to grant more flexible working requests with the confidence that the technology in place has evaluated any risk in advance.

With the right digital solution in place, the new flexible working bill could have a positive impact on companies, even those operating in high-risk, time-critical environments. Technology could allow managers to remotely plan their own schedules and those of their team, offering an unprecedented level of flexibility to improve employee job satisfaction and retention, whilst maintaining high safety standards, and company profitability.

Underpinned by the power of advanced technology, project managers can navigate the latest employment law, whilst staying competitive in an ever-changing workplace.