Third of employers expect staff to return to the workplace full time, study finds

Research reveals large disparities in businesses’ post-Covid strategies, as experts warn consulting employees over going back to the office is critical

Employers' plans for staff to return to the office are far from unanimous, according to recent data, but experts say firms need to work with employees to understand the best course of action. 

A survey of 448 organisations, conducted by employment law and HR support firm Ellis Whittam, found that a third (33 per cent) of employers expected staff who previously worked full time in the workplace to return every day post-pandemic. 

Meanwhile, more than a quarter (28 per cent) said they expected staff in for three days and only 14 per cent said they will offer complete flexibility.

However, despite this, a third of employers who said they were planning to introduce hybrid working have not consulted workers to understand when they would like to be in the office, and only half (50 per cent) of employers said they did not feel they need to measure productivity in order to understand performance at home compared to the workplace.

Ellis Whittam’s analysis of the figures suggested that this signals employers were less concerned about where people work from.

James Tamm, director of legal services at Ellis Whittam, warned that the disparity between fully office-based and hybrid working policies would create very different company cultures and operational challenges. 

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“All businesses considering making hybrid working part of their normal working pattern must act now,” he said, referencing how people are still living and working with the risk and uncertainty posed by Covid.

Tamm added that “while it’s too early for most to say what form of working is their best long-term bet, employers must at this point ensure regular dialogue with their employees”.

He advised managers to engage teams in planning processes, which will help to ensure potential issues and grievances are identified early on.

The research also found that nearly a third (31 per cent) of businesses that were planning on returning employees to the workplace were still working out processes. 

Almost three in 10 (29 per cent) firms said their entire workforce was already back, while just 10 per cent said they would not be bringing all staff back into the workplace in any capacity.

Responding to the data, Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula echoed Tamm’s statement that it is going to be “critical” to work together with employees to find the best way forward.

She said: “Engagement with any new way of working is going to be much higher if employee input is sought, therefore consulting employees is going to be beneficial in the short and long term, especially as establishing hybrid working going forward is likely to involve a contractual change, therefore agreement will be needed.”

Palmer added that having the flexibility to change from home to office-based working at short notice will allow for any unexpected isolation periods, therefore it was essential businesses got “management structures right to organise employees effectively, wherever they are [...and] put in place a hybrid working plan that will work for them”.

The report also found that when asked what might be their biggest business disruptor over the next few months, nearly two in five (37 per cent) employers reported absence as their most significant worry, including employees contracting Covid, post-travel quarantine and other forms of self-isolation.

More than a quarter (27 per cent) of respondents were most concerned about planning a return to the workplace that would keep everyone happy, and only 4 per cent were worried about employee disputes surrounding safety concerns, refusals to work, or refusals to continue to follow Covid safety measures.

Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, said it was surprising that so few employers were concerned about individual disputes.

“There is potential for divisiveness and conflict given the ongoing uncertainty and challenges people are facing,” she commented. “Employers should focus on building inclusive, compassionate cultures based on trust.”

Suff advised that employers needed to adjust their expectations accordingly and consider all available options to make the work process as easy as possible. 

“[Employers] can also mitigate against staff shortages by freeing up staff from less business critical areas and drawing on their business continuity plans,” she said, adding that managers need to be up to speed with any policy changes that have been made in light of the pandemic. 

“For example, many companies have removed Covid from their sickness absence reporting policy so people are not unfairly penalised if they are self-isolating or come down with the virus.”