A vast amount of people have now experienced the 'joys' of working from home amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While employers have had to deal with issues surrounding technology and data protection, employees have wrestled busy workloads with home-schooling or struggled with sharing an 'office' with flatmates who simply talk too loudly on the phone.

Despite these challenges, working from home has, at least in part, become a preference for many. Employers have, through necessity in order to comply with the prevailing public health guidelines, had to be more welcoming to a shift in the working dynamic and are allowing employees to take control of their working arrangements to suit their particular needs. What is clear is that flexible working, whether working reduced or varied hours or working from a different location, can be of benefit to both parties and it is likely that such arrangements will become more common in the future.

Employers should, however, be alive to the statutory framework that exists to ensure that they deal with any future flexible working requests lawfully. A failure to deal with a flexible working request fairly and reasonably could lead to potentially costly employment tribunal litigation, so it is important to seek specialist advice when necessary.

Any employee with at least 26 weeks' continuous employment can make a formal request for flexible working, but only one request can be made in any 12 month period. Employees can request a change to the hours they work, the times when they are required to work or their place of work (between their home and any of their employer's workplaces).

Employers must ensure that any requests are dealt with in a reasonable manner and the employee is notified of its decision within the applicable timeframe of three months from the date of the request, or longer if the parties agree. Employers can only refuse a request on specific grounds including a burden of additional costs or a detrimental impact to business, work quality or performance, among others.

The pandemic will likely lead to an influx of flexible working requests and it may be more difficult than normal for employers to refuse a request based on these grounds, particularly as many employees will be able to point to good performance when working from home. A consistent approach will always be advisable when dealing with flexible working requests and employers should be wary of potential discrimination claims arising out of a refusal.

Adopting a flexible workforce can lead to many benefits for both employers and employees. Employers could potentially reduce their office space and employees could save on travel and living costs. In some instances, employees have been willing to take pay cuts in order to have a permanent flexible working arrangement approved to benefit from a better work/life balance by cutting out lengthy commutes and allowing them to move away from major cities.

When proceeding into post COVID-19 working life, employers should look to establish new flexible working policies to benefit their current staff and attract new, high-quality talent. As many people have now grown accustomed to flexible working patterns, those employers who endorse and celebrate flexible working stand to benefit the most.