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At a time when organisations were considering what degree of flexibility to offer employees as they started to return to the office, this has been deferred by lockdown 3.0.

As lockdown continues across the UK, business leaders are considering the longer-term impact of prolonged working from home on their workforce.

The biggest home working experiment in history

The initial lockdown in March 2020 meant that remote working had to be rolled out across firms, regardless of the extent to which hot desking or working from home was already in operation. Many customers reported that their normal 9 to 5 was transformed overnight with the first lockdown, as businesses had to deliver something that would have taken them months to support infrastructure-wise under normal circumstances. Business as usual had to be accommodated by employees working from home or employees going into production plants or workplaces that were redesigned to ensure health and safety was championed.

The speed with which employers had to adapt was truly reflective of the extraordinary nature of the pandemic. However, for some employees, fatigue is setting in, especially as this lockdown is taking place over the winter months. The temptation for employees to not get dressed properly, to work informally and to not move consistently throughout the day poses a significant challenge to monitoring employee wellbeing and the sustained impact this is having on individuals. This is not to mention the additional responsibilities of those who are working in isolation or those having to work around children whilst supporting their home learning. Lockdown places numerous pressures that would not ordinarily be present if people were working from home in ordinary circumstances.

The impact on human interaction

Technology is the biggest advantage in overcoming communication challenges faced across businesses right now. Share platforms such as Zoom, Google and Microsoft Teams are all being used extensively to connect colleagues and clients. These tools are also helping in the events space to overcome the challenges posed by trying to stick to an events calendar that is all online. Some customers were in the process of setting up greater remote working technology just before lockdown and had to adjust quicker than others to the technological demands of remote working to ensure a continuity of service for customers.

However, the use of technology will vary widely between businesses and in certain scenarios. The flip side of saving crucial time on journeys to meetings is the quality of the human interaction and the impact on each meeting. Some employees will be finding that video calls will suit different scenarios better than others. For instance, in webinars or meetings with numerous participants, in a meeting that is inherently designed to be collaborative, the impact of participants turning off their video may be off-putting to the organiser. They might be constantly asking ‘are they with me?’ There may not be as great a rapport with those involved in video conferences. In contrast, one to ones might still be as effective, if not more, with close camera angles meaning that some may feel more connected.

Numerous HR challenges

In addition to the impact on communication internally and externally, remote working does raise a number of HR challenges. Firstly, there is the performance management dilemma. This may vary greatly depending on the individual line manager’s ability and to what extent their system of check-ins is effective. This onus is on their effectiveness, with remote working potentially amplifying the ability of the line manager’s people management skills. If they needed improvement before when people had greater opportunity to connect in communal areas, chances are that technology has exacerbated these tensions and the confidence of each manager to connect with their team.

If people did not have open conversations before, it is doubtful that they would start now. There is also the risk of being out of sight and therefore out of mind. The question of visibility may work both ways – for some, the pressure to be visible may place additional stress on the employee. This will greatly be defined by the relationship the employee has with their boss. Across each organisation, this raises complex cultural challenges for HR to address and support. Whilst remote working may provide more independence and freedom more generally, the focus on this must mean that HR has to be more proactive in career management of individuals. Some management styles and cultures will have thrived, such as Awin who have introduced a four-day working week to reduce office hours whilst supporting a healthier work-life balance.

Secondly, there is the challenge of upholding health and safety, which is essential to an employer’s obligations. Organisations are supposed to have oversight, translating into their ability to look after people. Businesses will have to provide a visible level of support for employees in establishing whether they are working in an environment that they are supposed to be in, with the right set up and support.

Thirdly, there are those who can easily work from home and those who will be required into business premises. In the construction sector, some have reported the onus being on office staff returning to work as there is the expectation for site employees to be physically on-site. This is true in the Care sector to some extent too, as there are employees more on the administrative side who have the option to work from home. This is equally true of those who have been furloughed, some since the beginning of March 2020, and those who have remained active employees. HR have many different groups with different experiences to manage and engage right now.

Office footprints

Before the announcement of further restrictions over Christmas, there was an even split of projections regarding a return to the office in our recent UK Reward Management Survey: one quarter predicting a return before April, just over one third between April – June and the remainder looking at an August return in 2021. Before the second lockdown, one quarter of organisations said they had returned to the office. However, in light of the third lockdown, the vaccination programme and whether the infection rates and impact can be controlled, there will inevitably be a move towards a later timetable in returning people to the office.

Our 2020 UK Reward Management Survey also revealed that 14 per cent of respondents were considering reducing their office space, reflecting the fact that many will expect a greater level of flexibility going forward. Research by LinkedIn in September 2020 on future working practices highlighted that 41 per cent will introduce flexible working hours to better suit working parents and those with dependents, whilst 49 per cent will give employees greater options around working from home. There is the suggestion that the legacy will be one akin to the industrial revolution, with new laws being discussed to give employees the right to challenge an employer’s refusal to allow homeworking. Work may continue to be predominantly done from home, with offices becoming more collaborative spaces for teams.

Get in touch

With assurances that this is the last lockdown as the government roll out the vaccination programme, it will be interesting to see how organisations tackle the question of going back in the long-term. Call us today if we can help with any aspect of remotely engaging employees through lockdown.


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