Downing Street has said the government has “no plans” to make working from home the default after the pandemic or to legislate for a legal right to work from home.
The denial came after reports that millions of UK workers could be given the right to work at home, with employers having to prove their presence in the workplace is essential for them to be required to physically attend.
Labour demanded clarity on what will be expected from workers following the planned lifting of remaining coronavirus restrictions on 19 July, insisting employees must not be “pressured or blackmailed back into unsafe workplaces”.
Boris Johnson promised in the 2019 Conservative manifesto to consult on making working from home “the default unless employers have good reasons not to”, and a Flexible Working Taskforce is currently reviewing the issue.
No date has been announced for results to be published, but a Whitehall source told The Daily Mail: “We are looking at introducing a default right to flexible working. That would cover things like reasonable requests by parents to start late so they can drop their kids at childcare.
“But in the case of office workers in particular it would also cover working from home – that would be the default right unless the employer could show good reason why someone should not.”
Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson told reporters: “We’ve asked people to work from home where they can during the pandemic but there are no plans to make this permanent or introduce a legal right to work from home ... We have no plans to make working from home the default.”
The taskforce was consulting on “a range of working arrangements around the time, place and hours of work and part-time working and flexi-time hours”, he said.
The spokesperson added: “We’ve always been clear there are significant benefits to be gained from people working in the office, in terms of innovation, delivery, support and developing people, and of course, ensuring people have a higher quality working environment.”
Mr Johnson’s spokesperson declined to say whether the PM wanted to see all civil servants back in their offices by the end of the year.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner called for greater clarity.
“Instead of leaks and briefings, the government must publish their proposals for office-based workers post 19 July,” said Ms Rayner.
“And the starting point must be a strengthening of workers’ rights on flexible working so that workers are not pressured or blackmailed back into unsafe workplaces.
“Throughout this crisis, this government has failed working people and failed to crack down on unsafe workplaces and rogue employers who have put workers at risk.
“Post-Covid, we can’t have one-sided flexibility that allows employers to dictate terms to their workers on flexible working.”
The general secretary of the Prospect union, Mike Clancy, said: “Flexible has to actually mean flexible. That means being able to negotiate your start and finish times and where you work, enabling you to arrive at a work solution that benefits both employer and employee.
“Keeping the same rigid hours but having to swap the office for home is not flexibility.
“There is also a real risk that we end up with a two-tier workforce, further divided between those who can work from home being given flexibility, and those who can’t being given none. Flexibility cannot be the preserve solely of management and more senior grades.”
At present, employees have the legal right to request flexible working after working for an employer for at least 26 weeks. Employers can reject an application for several reasons, including that it would incur extra costs on the business and that it would affect quality and performance.
Although the proportion of people working remotely from home more than doubled in 2020, remote workers still remained a minority of the UK’s workforce. Figures by the Office for National Statistics show that a quarter (25.9 per cent) of respondents worked remotely at some point in the week leading up to the survey, compared to 12.4 per cent the previous year.
The proportion of those working from home rises dramatically in London, with 46.4 per event saying they had done so.
The issue has divided government ministers, with chancellor Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson both being strong proponents of returning to the office. In an interview with The Telegraph earlier this year, Mr Sunak claimed staff may quit their jobs if they are not allowed to work from the office.
In contrast, Michael Gove, the cabinet office minister, appears to be more accepting of the ways the pandemic has changed work patterns.
“I suspect it may be the case that we may see different workplaces allowing people to work from home at certain points as well as coming into the office. I suspect there may be changes to the way that we live,” Mr Gove told the BBC earlier this week. “We won’t go back to the status quo.”