4 min read | 12 May, 2021 By Sophie Forrest, Director of ForrestHR and Forrest Health & Wellbeing
After over a year of working from home, many employees are, understandably, feeling apprehensive about returning to the office. Others have simply grown accustomed to the flexibility that accompanies remote working and are reluctant to give it up in favour of long commutes and less family time. So, is it time to rethink the way in which your employees work long term, and how you can best support them to navigate successfully the return to a new blueprint for working?
Not everyone has enjoyed working from home for the past year, but for those who have, many are feeling anxious about having to give up their newfound flexibility. The pandemic has proved to many businesses that might have previously felt reluctant to allow their staff to work remotely that a virtual workplace can be successful, prompting calls from many employees to maintain some element of remote working once the coronavirus restrictions are eased.
And it’s not just employees who are leading the calls; some notable companies have also gone on the record and stated that they’re going to push for a more flexible way of working post-lockdown. One employer who’s taken this stance is PwC, who are not only calling for a change in where we work, but also in when we work. The consultancy firm has won headlines by announcing that, once restrictions are eased, their employees will be able to dictate whether they work remotely or in-person, as well as the hours that they want to work.
However, not all businesses are on board with this new way of working. In February, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, David Soloman, dismissed the idea that the future of working will be virtual, berating it as an ‘aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible’. The stark contrast between the two companies clearly demonstrates that no one is really sure what the future will look like for UK employees in a post-COVID world.
Employers, and HR leaders supporting them, do have the right to dictate terms of working for staff and, should you wish to, you could make it a contractual obligation for employees to be physically present in the office every day. It is worth noting, however, that even when restrictions do cease entirely, there may still be guidance for clinically vulnerable people or pregnant women who are currently unable to have the vaccine, and this may leave some of your workforce still working virtually.
Additionally, it’s probably worth considering whether it’s a good idea to be completely rigid as to how staff work in a post-coronavirus world. For the sake of morale and team working, it may be positive to encourage – or even require – employees to come physically to work a couple of days a week, but forcing reluctant workers to be present every day could be counterproductive.
If you completely reject the idea of a blended way of working, your employees might start to become resentful, which could hurt their engagement and productivity. Furthermore, even if you’re not offering flexibility over working hours and place or work, the chances are, someone else will be, and staff might start to look elsewhere for employment, which will cost you time and money as you have to recruit and train new team members.
By giving employees some agency to choose the way in which they work, you’ll probably end up with a grateful workforce who’re eager to work effectively within your new working structure, which will boost the bottom line of your business and reduce HR headaches. However you determine the future organisation of your business, it’s still worthwhile being understanding of the reasons why employees may not want to return to the workplace and put in place a steady plan to support their transition back to the work environment.
A recent study by InstantPrint found that while a fifth of employees are eager to return to work, a third would prefer to remain working from home on a permanent basis. The research also found that 8% said they would never feel comfortable going back to work.
As an employer or HR leader, it’s a good idea to be mindful of the anxiety that your employees may feel around returning to work; after all, for over a year now the message from the government has been that home is the safest place to work and therefore it’s only natural that some people have built up worries about the workplace and commuting, especially on public transport.
The best way to manage such employees is through maintaining an open dialogue with them, keeping them informed of your timeline towards returning to work, as well as the practices you’re putting in place to keep them safe; the best businesses will tackle this collaboratively, consulting staff and getting their input into how the workspace will be managed safely. You may also consider investing in additional wellbeing support, such as counselling and training to manage the anxieties that staff may have; while this may seem like an additional cost, it could be a much cheaper strategy than losing valued team members.
If your area of business permits it, the likelihood is that most of your staff will opt for a blend between office and home working when we return to the workplace. To ensure that this happens successfully, it’s going to be up to business owners, managers and HR professionals to put in place the necessary structures.
This will include practicalities, such as:
Ultimately, with the right arrangements in place, as well as a collaborative approach between you and your staff and effective communication, you should be able to manage the return to work effectively to ensure an engaged, happy, productive workforce.
Sophie Forrest runs Forrest HR, which provides HR, training and development and health and wellbeing support to small and medium-sized businesses across the South East and London. She was named Female Entrepreneur of the Year 2020 in the SME News Southern Enterprise Awards, with ForrestHR named Best Emerging HR Consultancy Firm 2020.
Posted on 12 May, 2021