LEADING Hampshire employers have been speaking about their experience with flexible working in the coronavirus lockdown.

Southampton-based law firm Paris Smith has been harvesting opinion on the issue as it urges employers to follow the rules on requests for flexible working.

James Cretney, chief executive of Marwell Wildlife in Winchester, said: “We have 300 people on the payroll. People really enjoying working here and want to get back to work, but the reality is that some people will need to continue working from home in order to balance things in their lives.

“Childcare arrangements have been a real issue for many and, going forwards, we’ll do all we can to help. We’ve always been very open to flexible working requests and judge on output not time in the office.”

Andrew Edmonds, managing partner at accountants Smith & Williamson in Southampton, said: “Everyone is now working remotely and flexibly. Those with small children have been worst affected and, in the short term, we have agreed full flexibility on when they work – weekends, 6am starts, 2pm start in order to make it work.

“We have asked our local office who would like to come back in phase one when we reopen – only three said yes. In practice I think everyone is still scared to mix with anyone outside of his or her immediate social group. In practice it is much easier to close an office than it will be to reopen one, a bit like the country as a whole.”

He said he expected more home working and online meetings with clients, but junior staff would be expected to attend most of the time. “Some have struggled working remotely where they don’t have the support of more experienced team mates to train them,” he said.

Malcolm Thixton, office managing partner at BDO in Southampton, said: “We are expecting an increase in flexible working requests. In a recent survey, most of our people were finding it easy to work effectively out of the office, but it did not work for everyone.

“Positive comments focused on the amount of time saved from commuting and that they had fewer distractions at home. From a business point of view it is important that agile working works for us and we have an appropriate amount of time for effective internal and external face to face engagement.”

Colin Williams, director of Williams Shipping in Southampton, said: “We have had requests from several staff asking if they can work from home on a permanent basis. Our experience is that home working is proving to be productive and it may well be that we will allow certain staff to work at home for a proportion of the time, perhaps two to three days a week, but decisions will be made on an individual basis.

“However, we do not believe that permanent and total remote working would not be good for the company or staff members as over time their absence may result in them feeling they are no longer part of a team – and they would possibly lose touch with the overall business and its culture.”

Gail Thomas, vice-president and managing director in Europe for TW Metals, based in Nursling, said: “Historically we have only offered flexible working within the office environment and within certain guidelines. The current crisis has forced the company to be more flexible and allow home working.”

The business did not have enough laptops for home working, so many staff had to make room for desktop computers at home.

“As the very nature of the emergency did not allow the company to assess the suitability of either the role for homeworking of the suitability of home environment, we are now having to manage the wide variances of the employees’ expectations and this is impacted by their attitude to risk and the attitude of their family members to risk,” she said.

“This is looking like it could be a large burden for the company to manage. The company cannot afford yet another cost to employ staff that are reluctant to work away from home. Right now we are concerned and very focused on protecting jobs and reducing costs not adding to them; with a 50 per cent drop in revenue and the forecast of three years before we return to pre pandemic levels, retaining the current staffing numbers is a massive challenge.”

Paris Smith says staff have a legal right to ask for permanent flexible working. Requests are often dealt with informally, but there is a formal process and staff can complain to a tribunal if it is not followed.

Failing to deal with an application reasonably and failing to give a decision within a set period are among the grounds for complaint. Paris Smith said employers should tread especially carefully if the employee has caring responsibilities or a disability.

The firm said: “We suspect employees will be asking for more flexibility so they can work from home more often, or to change their hours to avoid rush hour commutes.

“Given how well home working has worked for many employers and employees, turning down a flexible working request may have just become a whole lot harder. However, there are many plus points. Employers may be able to retain employees who have long commutes or caring responsibilities, when otherwise such employees may have left to find more convenient work.”