Statement regarding homeworking, flexible hours and caring responsibilities

The following statement/advice has been agreed by the Branch Committee, seriously concerned about the danger that members may be put under pressure to agree to unreasonable working hours alongside caring responsibilities.  If you are not able to work for any reason, this should of course be discussed with your line manager as usual. But contact the Branch as advised in the statement.

Heroes, not Superheroes

Earlier this week the Vice Chancellor wrote to all staff to commend the “commitment and professionalism” of colleagues, referring to the “whole regiments of unsung heroes who have kept working, often doing extra hours, to keep the University going and support rapidly changing operations.”

It is true that a great deal of work, much of it above and beyond normal expectations, has gone into keeping the University going in these difficult times.  The VC’s praise is well deserved.

But all this incredible collective effort must not be exploited.  There is a limit to what can reasonably be expected of us, and the Branch is determined that our Health and Safety rights and Terms and Conditions must not be compromised. We are heroes, not superheroes.

UNISON, alongside the other unions, has been pressing for recognition by the University that it is unrealistic to insist that staff conform to business-as-usual working patterns and rules during the current crisis. What is needed is pragmatism, flexibility, and sensitivity. Recent ACAS guidance emphasises the importance of this: https://www.acas.org.uk/working-from-home.  An outcome-oriented approach could be adopted, looking at carefully prioritising essential work and taking into account what can reasonably be expected in individual circumstances.

But last Thursday (19th March), the University published a daily email update, which included a section on “working from home with care commitments.”     It included this statement:

“We appreciate that our families and those we care for are our primary concern, and that this will be the focus of your attention whilst this situation lasts.  However, we would ask that you balance this with work requirements.  If you are unable to make alternative care arrangements to cover your normal work pattern, this may mean that during this period you need to undertake your work in a new or different way which supports these responsibilities. We wish to support you with this.

This could mean agreeing a new work pattern with your line manager where you undertake work in the early mornings, weekends or evenings.  Whatever your work pattern, once this is agreed with your line manager, you should keep in contact on a regular basis, either through WebEx or by telephone.  It is important that you and your line manager speak to each other at least weekly, and preferably more often.”

The Branch immediately received outraged protests from members, especially those furious at the prospect of being expected to work unsociable hours on top of acting as full time carers (of children and other dependents) due to the public health situation. It is not surprising that the statement caused anxiety and anger from colleagues in this position.  It is not acceptable to expect anyone to somehow squeeze a 37 hour week into weekends, early mornings and late nights, let alone those with additional, exhausting, responsibilities.

The idea that colleagues in this situation might be penalised by using up annual leave or losing pay is not acceptable.

This contrasts starkly with the Vice Chancellor’s instruction to “Look after your mental and physical well-being”.

Flexible working arrangements – yes.   A pragmatic and supportive approach – yes.   Putting people under pressure to work late nights, or at 2am in the morning, or at weekends – no.

UNISON Branch Committee met urgently on Friday and voted to reject and oppose the guidance.   We are advising members not to agree to any changes to their working conditions without seeking advice from the Branch.   We are calling on the University to provide clearer and more supportive and understanding guidance, and to withdraw and clarify the current advice.   We are urging the University to make facilitating safe homeworking its first priority, as this is the most significant problem.

UNISON Branch Committee

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