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With the Governments rallying call for employees to return to the office, we consider what changes in technology will facilitate the transition.

As the working world prepares to return to the office from its latest period of working from home-led guidance, it is a useful opportunity to consider what a contemporary workplace now looks like and what the key considerations are for employers in practice.

With desks being replaced with kitchen tables and office space for spare bedrooms, the last two years have inevitably seen the blurring of the space between work and home. With this has come an exponential rise in the use of technology in overcoming the social and restrictive barriers caused by these new ways of working.

But over this time the lens of ESG as a way of measuring sustainability and responsibility for organisations’ decisions and activities has again come into focus and as a reminder of it being a key part of their corporate identity and strategy.

What then will the workplace look like for those starting to return, both through the use of technology but also for the ESG-conscious employer?

The key employment issues for any conscientious employer with an ESG-centric focus will likely be:

  • work-life balance
  • diversity and inclusion
  • employee engagement
  • training
  • living wage (real)
  • gender pay gap and reporting
  • health and safety and wellbeing.

Such issues not only drive employee recruitment, engagement and retention but speak to today’s reputational and wider strategic and stakeholder priorities. They will therefore have to not only be legally compliant but also intrinsically affiliated to the wider social and ethical considerations.

This then brings into focus the question of where and how employers use technology in the workplace?

Central to the evolution of home working over the last two years has been the use of tech and other collaboration tools. Increased connectivity and availability raise the inevitable questions of where and when the working day ends.

How does the ESG conscious business manage such issues — do they look to the continent and the French-led legal rights to disconnect outside of normal working hours? Are managers and leaders trained on how to supervise and appraise remote home working and collaboration? What steps will be taken to help employees self-discipline their time or raise issues and concerns if they need to?

It is likely too simple an approach to just shift employees to working from home and not expect there to be any indirect consequence or impact. Policies and procedures need to inherently tie into that working environment and reflect how and when employees and colleagues now work.

Of course, it has not just been the pandemic that has been the catalyst for tech-driven advances in the workplace. In recent years some employers have embraced the benefits that AI and predictive technologies can add to their businesses. The ability to extract, process and apply large amounts of data to analyse trends and predict future patterns for employees, customers and competitors has potential applications across a wide range of scenarios. Businesses that have embraced the benefits have thrived and stepped ahead of their competition.

However, warning signs have already started to emerge of the care needed when applying tech in the workplace. Uber is currently navigating an employment tribunal claim for race discrimination involving a black driver who alleges his account was deactivated when facial verification software did not recognise him due to alleged inherent discriminatory automated algorithms within their facial recognition software, whilst in 2018 Amazon ceased development of a potential AI recruitment tool. The system unintentionally favoured CVs from male applicants due to the sample size upon it was trained being drawn from a male-dominated tech industry.  

Even if the tech works as it should, there remains the thorny issue of making sure that any personal data collated is used both legally and ethically.

The lawful use of personal data has long been understood by virtue of the Data Protection Act 1998 and General Data Protection Regulations 2018 (‘GDPR’). However, in 2019 the Information Commissioner’s Office appointed its first Data Ethics Advisor. The ICO had made clear that there will be a focus on the fairness, potential harm and risk attached to the use of data.

Employers will therefore need to be careful in balancing employees’ rights to privacy against the need or wish to monitor them and collect data; particularly if that is involved in the management of remote or agile working. 

These issues may just be the tip of the iceberg and each business will have its own people, tech and business challenges. However, they serve as a useful reminder that it is not just the work that people do that is important, but also how they do it and the environment within which they do it. An employer’s culture matters now as much not only to its employees but to its customers and its stakeholders.

Technology will continue to help employers develop, advance and improve. But those changes will bring new challenges. The businesses which will likely succeed the most will be those which see the challenges and embrace them as part of an inclusive and collaborative culture.

Contact our team of leading employment law solicitors for expert advice in relation to all aspects of employment law. For advice on data protection, information governance, privacy, cyber liability and electronic communications, contact our data protection solicitors.