Jeans and sneakers at work, thinking caves, flexi-working, moving around the office by Segway, hot-desking, swings in reception and green walls in the lunchroom.
Entrepreneurial businesses are constantly thinking of ways to change the working environment, in the hope of creating a more inspiring, productive, cost-effective workplace. The end game is more engaged workers and a better bottom line.
"Modern working" is a buzzword used to describe the trend away from a traditional office-based workplace to a more flexible environment. It is the product of two key drivers: increasing pressure on organisations to be more competitive, efficient and flexible; and better connectivity and availability through communication and information technology.
Modern working brings its challenges. How can you trust your employees to do the work they are supposed to do? How do you ensure their safety in a decentralised environment?
Modern working has led to new and innovative business models, enabling organisations to use technology as the primary means of connecting workers with the organisation. Increased flexibility can mean workers providing their own equipment, choosing their own working hours and place of work, zero-hour contracts, working for multiple employers and communicating with their employers via apps and GPS technology.
The employee/contractor debate remains as relevant as ever. Miscategorising employees as contractors can give rise to tax liability, holiday pay arrears and personal grievance liability. Where work practices are less traditional, it is even more important for businesses to assess their worker relationships against the usual tests of control, integration and whether the individual is in business on his or her own account.
Employment law is changing to keep pace with the demands of the labour market and to balance flexibility and fairness. But it is important for businesses to continue to comply with their minimum obligations. For example, while increased flexibility around breaks was introduced this year, zero-hour contracts (that do not require the employer to commit to a minimum number of hours but require the employee to be available for work) are being reconsidered and may be subject to further regulation this year.
A modern working environment can also make it more difficult to monitor working hours and manage performance in a traditional way.
Although GPS trackers and web-based tools give some visibility as to where an employee is, and whether he or she is logged on, managers will also need to think about measuring performance through outputs and assessment against specific goals as opposed to monitoring hours spent in the workplace. The traditional rules of setting clear performance expectations, providing support and giving regular feedback have a renewed relevance in the modern workplace.
Managers need to be trained in having the difficult discussions at an early stage and in a sensitive way. Making the right hiring decisions, and conducting due diligence on prospective employees will also become increasingly important.
Employees working remotely may miss out on opportunities for work-shadowing, observation and training. Thought may need to be given to scheduling work so training opportunities align with times that the employees are in the office.
Care needs to be taken to include remote employees in social invitations, team meetings or training sessions, using technology to facilitate this where appropriate. Managers should be alert to signs employees are becoming isolated and take steps to raise this at an early stage.
Modern working also carries technological risks. As workers become more mobile, and access company and client data in different ways, it becomes increasingly important for businesses to have clear rules in place about the storage and use of confidential information.
Where individuals are working from home, thought should be given to setting guidelines around access to, and storage of, information in the home environment.
The risk of employees misappropriating confidential information is highlighted in a modern working environment. Again, employers need to have clear policies around the transfer of documents to web-based applications, printing and transferring of information and the requirements of workers on termination around the return of documents in both hard copy and electronic form.
Entrepreneurial businesses are often characterised by leveraging social media to promote their brand and products. Having workers talk openly about a business can be a great advertisement. However those who disparage the business online or are "off message" in their public communications can do untold damage.
Aside from making good hiring decisions and developing trust, businesses should also give thought to a public communications or social media policy to guide workers in their online conduct.
In addition to cyber safety, physical and mental safety throws up issues. Impending health and safety legislation emphasises a duty to take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure the health and safety of all workers, and those affected by the work a business does, irrespective of the nature of the relationship or where that work takes place.
In a traditional office-based environment, employers are better able to monitor worker health and safety in terms of ergonomics, breaks and general wellbeing. In a flexible working environment, employers should educate workers to ensure their workplaces are ergonomically safe or send consultants to help.
Increased travel by workers emphasises the need to implement an appropriate vehicle policy, covering issues such as vehicle use, smoking, maintenance, driving behaviour and driving hours. Businesses with workers visiting client sites must be confident their clients have appropriate health and safety processes to ensure the safety of their workers while they are on site.
Every working environment will be different, so businesses should ensure their usual hazard and risk assessment processes adequately address the hazards faced by workers in a more flexible environment.
Technology, combined with businesses looking to differentiate themselves in the market, has produced some truly innovative changes to the traditional working environment. Smart businesses will be considering how they can best harness technology and change their mind-set to offer employees flexibility and tailored working solutions, while at the same time protecting productivity, public image and profit.
Christie Hall is Employment and Health and Safety Law Leader at EY Law and Zena Razoki is a law clerk at EY Law.