Flexible working has become the hallmark of an inclusive, modern employer, a vital way of attracting staff in a tight labour market. John Krafts outlines why practices need to be more open to this arrangement and how to be ready for – and legally compliant in – handling staff requests.
Hybrid working is a term that has become much more widely used because of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is a form of flexible working where workers spend some of their contracted hours working remotely (usually, but not necessarily, from home) and some at their employer’s premises. Hybrid working can take a number of forms, including:
- Working mainly remotely with occasional time spent with colleagues in the workplace
- Working mainly from the workplace with occasional days spent working remotely
- Variable levels of hybrid work depending on the time of year or seasonal fluctuations.
Hybrid working is on the rise. A YouGov survey of 2,046 workers, published by Microsoft UK in December 2021, found that 51% of respondents with the choice to mix remote and office working would consider leaving their company if this flexibility was removed. While these attitudes are not as common in general practice, GPs operate in a competitive labour market and for many primary care staff, general practice is not the only show in town.
Can general practice offer hybrid working?
Pre-pandemic, the nature of general practice work meant there was an expectation that it couldn’t be anything other than site based. Lockdowns and the requirement for clinically vulnerable staff to self-isolate changed that assumption and gave general practice the opportunity to explore the feasibility of hybrid working. At the same time, GPs are continuing to work more collaboratively within PCNs, with shared workers commonly working flexibly across the practices they serve. This has inevitably resulted in a form of hybrid working.
Independent think tank The Kings Fund researched remote working in March 2021 and published its Remote working toolkit for general practices and primary care networks. Other than this work, research and publications on flexible and remote working within general practice have, in comparison with the rest of UK plc, been thin on the ground.
It’s clear that Covid-19 is here to stay for a while and new variants are expected. While full lockdowns are hopefully behind us, we can expect other societal measures, such as ‘working from home where possible,’ to be in place whenever needed to control the virus’ spread.
Health and safety law will continue to trump all other legal responsibilities and the clinically vulnerable will still need to be protected. Self-isolation and the closure of schools may also mean that GPs and their staff may at times be unable to work as normal from the surgery. Regardless of GP attitudes to the concepts and general feasibility of hybrid and remote working, general practice would be well advised to prepare for our new reality and develop plans for hybrid/flexible working arrangements.
NHS England has made funding available for Primary care flexible staff pools. The aim is to create a new offer for local GPs wanting to work flexibly through the pool arrangement could have access to the flexibility of a locum role, with the additional benefits of a salaried position.
The push for hybrid and flexible working
The NHS People Plan 2020/21 has as one of its key themes ‘new ways of working and delivering care’ and shares the experience of clinicians delivering care using flexible working across the health and social care sector, particularly in the wake of Covid-19. It promotes this arrangement as being part and parcel of being a ‘modern and model employer.’
While this plan is not primarily designed with general practice in mind, people management leads would be well advised to see what’s happening in their local trust to support hybrid and flexible working.
The legal basis for employees to request flexible working
Under the Flexible Working Regulations 2014, all UK workers have a statutory right to request flexible working. However, a request can only be made by employees with more than 26 weeks’ continuous service and a request must not have made within the preceding 12 months. To supplement the regulations, independent workplace expert ACAS (its full name is the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) has published a code of practice on handling requests to work flexibly. The Code of Practice sets out best practice but also, most importantly, the steps you are legally required to comply with.
With effect from 13 September 2021, the NHS created a new contractual right for workers to request flexible working as a day one right and to make multiple requests in a 12-month period. While the vast majority of GPs have not incorporated NHS collective agreements into their own contracting provisions (and why would they?), the race is on. GP employers are well advised not to bury their heads in the sand and risk the loss of talent to NHS trusts where flexible working is set to become ever more prevalent.
How should general practice deal with the growth of hybrid working?
Although general practice will undoubtedly need to continue a predominantly traditional model of working from the surgery, the genie is out of the bottle as far as requests from staff to work flexibly are concerned – they are only likely to become more common.
GP partners and their practice managers should develop a flexible working policy that, at the very minimum, will protect the business from legal claims. Once the policy is drafted, engage the practice team in discussion about policy and to set expectations. Keep policy and practice under review to ensure your approach remains up-to-date and your flexible working practices deliver the needs of the business.
John Krafts runs Kraft HR Consulting Ltd with its client base of predominantly GP surgeries and larger NHS providers. John and his team work closely with practices, federations and PCNs in the Midlands and further afield.