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At the end of the summer, organisations were evaluating to what extent they could safely reintroduce as many employees as possible back into the office. Now the latest guidance from the government in light of rising infection rate data is to return to working from home where possible.

The change in advice underlines the fact that the pandemic is very much ongoing and organisations need to remain agile in response to circumstances that can change overnight. Here we outline three key considerations for employers managing remote working for prolonged periods.

Current plans to return to work

As part of our autumn UK Reward Management Survey, which is live now, the preliminary key figures around the current and planned return to the office are striking. When asked what has been the percentage of the workforce returning to the office, 74 per cent estimate that less than 20 per cent are back at the moment, signaling apprehension even before the change in advice last week. The majority of organisations don’t expect more than 20 per cent to be back until April 2021.

Only 30 per cent of organisations by end of this year expect up to 20 per cent of their staff to be back. 63 per cent expect less than 20 per cent to return at the end of the year. By April 2021, half of organisations expect 50 per cent to be back. The majority don’t anticipate their workforce to be above 50 per cent capacity in the office before August 2021, with only 43 per cent anticipating that over half of their workforce will be in the office by that period.

The three key concerns for employers facing continued restrictions are:

1. Remaining adaptable

An agile and responsive outlook has been important since lockdown in March. Whilst the government actively encouraged firms to get employees back into the office space to stimulate the economy, fuelling café and retail businesses in office areas, this has been curtailed since last week. The impact on operations, especially for retail and construction where working from home is trickier has led to increased scrutiny on safety precautions introduced to protect workers physically required to be in their place of work.

Many organisations have undertaken extensive scenario planning for the next year and beyond in light of greater local lockdowns and talk of a ‘circuit breaker’ with more restrictions across the UK. The impression from talking to customers is that they knew that the low rates over summer shouldn’t inspire complacency without a vaccine in place – the pandemic is not solved and businesses must be vigilant, ever-improving the systems in place to protect workers. Many have underlined that after the sharp shock in March, remote working is in full flow where possible, alongside booking systems to manage employees needing to come into the workplace. The key lies in adapting whilst still meeting customer demand. If this continues into next year, businesses are well placed through adapted business plans to take the worst-case scenarios into account.

2. Managing pay decisions

One of the key economic arguments to return to the office was driven by the once bustling city centre areas seeing a continued downturn in footfall in the wake of remote working. Working from home will continue to affect buying decisions and have an effect on the local economy. People saving hundreds on petrol, lunch, train travel may mean this is invested in local businesses. With fewer costs for employees, especially for the commute if some move to a completely remote working model, this may affect the premium paid to those in big cities. The potential rebalancing of the economy across the country is leading some employers to question why they need to pay premiums to workers in the City. There is a careful balance to be struck to not undermine employee engagement in this instance and effective negotiation will be critical to maintain trust on either side of the employee-employer relationship in these instances.

Similarly, where furlough, redundancies and pay freezes are in operation, pay will be constrained and the impact on employee engagement will have to be addressed. Total Reward Statements can help to underline the investment that each employer is making in their employees. These can be tangible, covering pay, bonus and cash benefits, or intangible, covering learning and development opportunities, holiday entitlement and more creative benefits like volunteering days. Each employee will derive different levels of value from each of these elements, which is crucial to employee satisfaction.

3. Analysing HR policies

The focus on the individual has to come to the fore when examining how effective existing HR policies are in light of the pandemic. This is a multi-faceted issue; HR policies encompass the benefits employees have access to, including what is permissible through sickness and absence policies. The UK Reward Management Survey results will examine these in greater detail and outline the changes being made to the policies in light of the pandemic. With greater remote working, there is the opportunity to role out greater flexibility and discretion for logging sick days. There may be more reluctance when redundancies and job security is at risk in the current climate of uncertainty, for employees to log a sick day if the work is getting done without the individual having to physically come into the office. In contrast, employers do not want to discourage self-isolation with stringent policies if employees are presenting with COVID-19 symptoms over the winter period, so there is a lot of issues to unravel when reviewing these.

Similarly, employee wellbeing has never been more widely discussed. The mental health impact of the pandemic has been widely discussed as the restrictions are ongoing, social isolation potentially continues for at risk groups and without the benefit of good weather to buoy people in lockdown. Having strong policies in relation to the health of each individual employee will not only pay dividends now as each employee will benefit from support during these difficult times; it will strengthen your employee value proposition in the long-term by building a supportive culture.

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