Return to office hampered by commuting and work-life balance concerns, poll finds

Experts urge employers to ‘pay attention’ to staff worries but also recognise working from home has ‘morphed into living at work’ for some

Employees are concerned about their commutes to work and work-life balance when returning to the office, a survey has revealed.

The poll of 100 UK workers conducted by e-days found that concerns about their health was the least common reason respondents cited for not wanting to return to the office, given by one in four (25 per cent), many had other reasons for not wanting to go back to their place of work.

Almost as many respondents (37 per cent) said their biggest concern was the impact of a return to the workplace on their work-life balance, while another 34 per cent said they did not want to go back to commuting. 

Similarly, research from Roadmender Asphalt found that two-thirds (65 per cent) of 2,083  Brits no longer felt comfortable commuting to work via public transport, while a third (35 per cent) felt that travelling to work would have a negative impact on their mental health.

Liz Beck, managing director and leadership coach at AspiringHR, said she had seen a similar spread of concerns about returning to work from staff at her clients’ organisations. Beck said many employees were reluctant to go back to the daily commute and had become nervous about the return to the office infringing on their family and social lives.

“Employers need to pay attention to these messages if they want to retain key talent; and they need to work hard to create processes and environments that make these adjustments possible,” she said.

Suzanne Hurndall, relationship director at HR Inspire, said long commutes could increase the risk of heart attacks and high blood pressure while also exacerbating productivity problems such as absenteeism and lateness. She suggested employers “set fair and realistic work-life boundaries that should be communicated with [employees’] supervisors, co-workers, partners and family.”

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The e-days and Roadmender Asphalt research followed analysis from US bank Morgan Stanley showing that the UK was lagging behind its European counterparts in returning staff to the office. Almost three-quarters (68 per cent) of white collar employees in France, Germany, Italy and Spain had returned to their desks, compared to just one third (34 per cent) in the UK, it found.

This could be down to a difference in management and leadership styles, with progressive employers “finding ways to accommodate” a split between home and office and shifting their focus from attendance to outcomes, said Beck.

“Where employees are clear on their responsibilities, trusted by their leaders and measured on their outcomes, we see much less resistance to the consideration of home working or blended working,” she said.

“There is much to address in terms of leadership messaging, management skill, clarity of outcomes, processes that drive the desired behaviours and creating an environment of psychological safety where people can thrive,” she added.

However, HR coach and consultant Gemma Bullivant challenged the assumption that working from home was better for work-life balance than working in an office. “The evidence here is conflicting. Working from home has, for some, morphed into living at work, whether due to a lack of dedicated working space at home or difficulty drawing time boundaries between work and home,” she said.

“The removal of regular commuting has removed a very tangible punctuation point in the working day that separates work from home. I'd also like to challenge the assumption that working from home is somehow 'easier.’ I don't think this is the case,” said Bullivant.