Tue 09 Jul 2019

Is climate change the stick we need to make us truly embrace more agile ways of working?

Agile working and workplace wellbeing are hot topics in employment law at the moment.  We read about businesses that can maintain productivity while working and continuing to pay employees their full time wage, and how alternative ways of working helps staff morale, improves mental health and promotes a healthier work/life balance.  

But while many businesses are keen to highlight the number of flexible working options they are willing to support, how many of us are or know someone who is doing anything more out of the ordinary than working standard part-time hours?

The climate emergency is also a hot topic globally (unfortunately all too literally).  Recent reports have highlighted that while recycling and reducing plastic use is important, it is decarbonisation that is essential to keeping global warming below 2 degrees.  The more we work, the more carbon we produce, both by consuming resources and producing CO2, so a reduction in working hours has a tangible role in achieving environmental stability.

What these issues have in common is that many businesses seem keen to be seen to be at the forefront of dealing with them, yet, in practice, there seems to be a reluctance to really grasp the nettle and get on with it. 

This reluctance is understandable from a financial perspective - just ask Philip Hammond who indicated that the UK Government's net zero carbon policy will cost £1tn to create.  Businesses have a bottom line.  Even without considering the recent research from think tank Autonomy that suggests UK workers will need to move to a 9 hour week to meet environmental targets the risk of a detrimental impact on both productively and profitability makes fully embracing flexible working a difficult step to take. While the optimistic see a reduction in workings hours as contributing to bursting the bubble of over consumerism, we are yet to see many articles addressing what it might mean for the survival of businesses and the job security of those that work for them.  Industries that require people on the ground to do the work at specific locations are arguably more at risk than those whose workers can simply login from home.  Automation and labour saving technology and their green credentials are touted as potential answers to the challenge of maintaining productivity (although there are differing views as whether the current level of productivity is environmentally sustainable) but that and the fact that automation was likely coming anyway, irrespective of the climate emergency, will be of little comfort to those whose jobs are at risk.

What differentiates a failure to embrace flexible working from a reluctance to take steps to deal with climate change is that, on the face of it, promoting flexible working is a choice - taking steps to deal with the climate emergency is not.  And if businesses have their hands forced by the climate emergency to stop simply producing policies and "talking the talk" and instead start actively promoting flexible working, or as many aspects of it as possible, the outcome is likely to improve wellbeing and reduce inequality in the workplace as well as addressing environmental issues.

Agile working is very much more than just offering part-time hours (or changing to a four day week).  Indeed, the environmental benefits of part-time hours may be minimal, particularly if it still involves attending the workplace five days a week just for a shorter time.  Under the statutory flexible working regime an employee can request a change to the hours they work, the times they work and the place they work.  That may not sound much but it encompasses not only part time work but also annualised hours, compressed hours, flexi-time, homeworking, job-sharing, shift-working and term-time working amongst others.  The variety of possibilities is endless, and need not be limited to those who qualify (by being employees) for the statutory right to request, if employers are open minded enough.  It is easy to see how annualised hours, compressed hours, term-time working and homeworking could reduce a worker's carbon footprint simply by reducing the number of days a week they require to commute to work.

There are, of course, other changes to ways of working beyond hours of work that the climate emergency may well force.  Travel for example. How many Scottish businesses when faced with the logistics of attending a meeting in London immediately look for cheap flights.  "Flygskam" or "flight shame" will inevitably make its way from Sweden across the world and with it may come not only a move away from flying as the first option for business travel but also increased use of readily available technology to conduct meetings by way of, for example, videoconferencing.  Are businesses ready to "risk" dialling in instead of actually pressing the flesh like their competitors located more locally to clients might be able to do?  It seems unlikely at the moment in many cases, but it seems inevitable that instances of "long distance" business will significantly increase in the future.  A positive knock on effect of this is that inequality is often difficult to disentangle from the requirement to work full time (or full time plus). For those with domestic, caring or other similar commitments, who cannot make the significant out of hours time commitment that frequent travel requires, changes of this type will be a welcome levelling of the playing field.

Businesses are becoming more and more conscious of the need to be cognisant of the impact they are having on the environment.  That awareness is only going to increase in future - the UK Government is pushing strategies for sustainable investment, companies will be required to document how the climate emergency impacts on profits and the Treasury has plans for establishing a new green finance institute.  Pressure is likely to continue to build on businesses of all sizes to demonstrate their green credentials.  Fully embracing agile and other alternative ways of working seems like one of the easier steps to take.

Make an Enquiry

From our offices we serve the whole of Scotland, as well as clients around the world with interests in Scotland. Please complete the form below, and a member of our team will be in touch shortly.

Morton Fraser MacRoberts LLP will use the information you provide to contact you about your inquiry. The information is confidential. For more information on our privacy practices please see our Privacy Notice