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Remote working has been mandated by the pandemic for many employees, which has led to an ‘overtime epidemic’ according to a study by thinktank Autonomy. In contrast, French law protects employees’ “right to disconnect”, where employers are not to be allowed to expect staff to answer calls or read emails outside of agreed work hours. The blurred boundaries between work and leisure time is a key challenge for employees as working from home continues.

Here we outline what employers should consider as they decide to what extent, if at all, they should mandate a return to the workplace.

Prolonged uncertainty

Employees are reporting the psychological effects associated with the return to the workplace. Many feel anxious, after such a long period where they are not used to being in the same room and interacting with lots of people, and report feeling pressure to put on a brave face at work. A survey by Lime Insurance revealed that only 16 per cent of respondents felt that their mental health was well supported at work and 51 per cent felt pressure to hide mental health concerns.

“The pandemic removed healthy boundaries between work and home-life separation, with some institutionalised to their own bedroom.”

The pandemic removed healthy boundaries between work and home-life separation, with some institutionalised to their own bedroom. This can start to have a profound impact on employees’ physical and mental health that cannot be undone overnight with a mandated return to the workplace. Whilst the impact on people’s mental health was discussed prominently at the start of the pandemic, some might argue that more concrete action is increasingly required.

As fatigue sets in because of the continued uncertainty posed by the pandemic, reinforced by news of a nationwide lockdown in New Zealand and rising infection rates in the UK, Covid-19 is ever-present. Research by the thinktank Autonomy revealed that there is a disproportionate impact on women’s mental health as they are 43 per cent more likely to have increased their working hours beyond a standard working week. This has been exacerbated for those with children and trying to juggle childcare responsibilities.

Hybrid working

As firms rethink their workplace policies, employees are increasingly being offered new ways of working that are consistent with the patterns they have become accustomed to. Our spring UK Reward Management Survey indicated that only four per cent of respondent employers intend to return to their previous ways of working. 67 per cent are making the return to the office voluntary, as 81 per cent are continuing to offer home working. Only one in five anticipate a return of over 90 per cent of employees to the office by the end of 2021.

Half of respondent employers have used working groups to actively listen to employee concerns over new ways of working. Some companies are following the lead of their employees and listening to what suits them and their lifestyle. The Ocado Group, the tech firm behind the online grocer, are offering staff the opportunity to work abroad remotely for one month a year, in recognition of flexible working being here to stay. This also demonstrates how it is easier for certain roles, such as those in the tech sector, to be completely virtual.

“There was controversy around suggestions that those who work from home should take a pay cut.”

There was controversy around suggestions that those who work from home should take a pay cut. The Business Secretary Mr Kwarteng rejected this idea on the basis that it would set up divisions among colleagues. However, other companies such as Google have not ruled this approach out.  It is a tricky balance for employers to balance affordability and costs involved when managing hybrid workforces. Only 36 per cent of employers were actively looking to reduce the office space they currently hold in spring 2021, which is significant when considering employers will have to continue to pay leases even if the majority of their employees want to continue to work remotely. Penalising them, on the other hand, feels unnecessarily punitive when workers will have proved that productivity levels can be sustained.

Clear communication and vision

Hybrid working is inherently linked to a debate about the very purpose of the workplace. Whilst 84 per cent of employers anticipate that flexibility will be more readily available, others wish to revert to how things were done before the pandemic. Comments by the Chief Executive of Goldman Sachs David Solomon, that working from home is an ‘aberration’ seem to be supported by Rishi Sunak who has warned that career progression may be hindered by home working.

Whilst there is a valid argument that being present in an office can more easily facilitate learning by osmosis and stronger relationship building opportunities that cannot be replaced by video conferencing, this has to be balanced against the message that defined levels of return have on a team who have been successfully operating remotely. Fears over employers distrusting remote workers and wanting to monitor employees may affect the extent to which an individual feels valued in their role. To avoid any retention difficulties as a consequence of defined levels of return, the messaging behind each firm’s approach needs to be carefully considered and communicated consistently, from leadership to line management.

There is also the concern that to undo flexible working will also undermine access to work that the pandemic has facilitated for many people who are under-represented in the workplace. Social disadvantages for those who have mobility issues and are unable to do the commute to those who are from a lower socio-economic postcodes were removed by the ability to join a workplace virtually. Therefore, any rejection of a more digital way of working needs to ensure it still accommodates diverse talent, regardless of geographic limitations.

Recruitment and retention

Four million people quit their jobs in April alone in the United States. In Virginia, job adverts in the hospitality sector offered double the minimum wage, demonstrating in practice how money alone does not tackle recruitment and retention difficulties. How individuals are treated defines who they choose to work for and stay with. Feeling valued is absolutely crucial. Referral bonuses will not work if employees would not recommend their company as a great place to work.

By ensuring your reward package is competitive and fair, integrity and equity should guide decision making throughout companies and set the tone of company culture. Harvard Business Review has demonstrated how employee turnover rates halved where employees believed that promotions were being managed effectively, illustrating how fair decision-making dictates employee satisfaction and whether they want to stay with their employer.

“According to our spring 2021 UK Reward Management Survey, one third expect retention difficulties in the next six months and one in five have experienced difficulties in retention so far this year.”

According to our spring 2021 UK Reward Management Survey, one third expect retention difficulties in the next six months and one in five have experienced difficulties in retention so far this year. Just over one third expect recruitment challenges in the next six months and one third have experienced challenges so far in 2021. This is an increase since autumn 2020, indicating signs that the labour market is set to be more buoyant in the coming months, in line with the unlocking of restrictions.

Job vacancies have hit an all-time high of almost one million, according to the Official for National Statistics. However, Rosalind Lowe, head of policy and engagement at the National Centre for Universities and Business warned that there may be serious concerns that the labour market is “witnessing a skills mismatch”. Skills and training are going to be vital for fuelling the economy post-pandemic, and many employers are being urged to ensure that back to work schemes, aimed at those on furlough, and upskilling will help keep employees invested and engaged in organisations. We are yet to see the impact of the Coronavirus Retention Scheme coming to an end in September, so driving employee engagement will be vital for the labour market as it enters autumn, but the gradual withdrawal of the safety net is helping to keep redundancies at bay.

Immediate considerations

Anxiety around a return to the workplace was a common theme amongst respondent employers in our spring survey. Whilst employees appear apprehensive about a return to physical workspaces, with some being out of the office since March 2020, others fear the accelerated change and the expectation from organisations to immediately return.

The reasons behind employee anxiety may vary so it is critical to understand why each individual feels apprehensive. This may be something you can work with them to alleviate – such as increasing cleaning and the visibility of health and safety measures if they are concerned over the risks they face. 24 per cent of employers are offering working bubbles and eight per cent are introducing ‘Covid Wardens’. Only six per cent have introduced mandatory testing, with 24 per cent offering voluntary workplace testing for the virus. Mandating vaccinations is a huge consideration from an employment law perspective.

Others may be concerned about the commute and risks they face, which may just require patience and time until the full unlocking on the roadmap is reached and being in crowded places feels more usual once again. In response to this, 36 per cent are offering shorter days or different shift patterns which could enable employees to control their working day and avoid busy commuting times.

Get in touch

With a gradual return to the office expected, the scope given to the employer needs to be seen as an opportunity. Many are operating a ‘wait and see’ approach when it comes to what others will do in terms of setting expectations and guidance around how many days employees will be asked to come into the office. However, those who define what they want their workplace to offer employees and give them certainty at the earliest opportunity can strengthen employee loyalty and drive employee engagement with a defined plan. Call us today if you would like to talk through any of the challenges you face in your sector and how fairness can form the cornerstone of your approach.

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