In the UK, Making Remote Work Automatic?

A government proposal could force companies to make remote work the “default” option, a step that would upend decades of traditional office scenarios.

Organizations worldwide are trying to figure out which employees should work at the office and which can work from home. In the United Kingdom, however, there’s a proposal to make one part of that equation almost automatic.

In a move that is causing deep consternation among many business leaders, the UK is considering making remote work the “default” option. Under that plan, said to be endorsed by Downing Street but still in the early stages, employees would have the right to request remote work, and then companies would have to prove why that request couldn’t be approved. “It’s quite extraordinary to make it a rule,” says Sonamara Jeffreys, Korn Ferry’s co-president for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

The idea comes amid growing pressure from workers—not only in the UK but in the United States and elsewhere—to not return full-time to the office. Certain sectors, such as the finance industry, have been aggressively mandating a full return this summer and fall, while other firms in other industries are still considering hybrid or fully remote options.

The debate in the UK is the same as it is anywhere else: while leaders did see many workers perform well at home during the pandemic lockdowns, most worry that brainstorming and other areas of work suffer without in-office meetings. Finding novel solutions to business problems usually requires in-person interdisciplinary discourse rather than Zoom meetings, says Johan Blomqvist, Korn Ferry’s general manager for the firm’s Helsinki office. “Creativity is not easy to achieve virtually,” he says.

The UK plan, which was proposed by a group of human resources professionals, still needs to be put into legislature and then approved by Parliament. Critics say backers so far have not weighed several tricky issues that having fully remote staffs could create, such as liability issues and protecting worker health and safety. Plus, there has been no proposal for funding the costs to make an employee’s home both safe and technologically up-to-speed. “I don’t think the government has thought that one through,” Jeffreys says.