Half of workers expect to work more flexibly after lockdown, survey finds

Research shows productivity has been maintained for many home workers during the crisis, but experts warn staff will need support for this to be the case long term

Almost half (45 per cent) of workers expect to work more flexibly after lockdown restrictions on UK businesses are lifted, according to research.

The survey, conducted by O2, ICM and YouGov, predicted employees will be reluctant to give up working remotely after lockdown, with many believing their employer will permanently change their approach to flexible working as a result of the crisis. 

A third (33 per cent) of respondents expected to work from home at least three days a week after lockdown, and 81 per cent expected to work remotely at least one day a week.

The research coincided with a separate survey by Willis Towers Watson which found employees had remained productive while working from home despite the challenges posed by the crisis. 

Only 15 per cent of the 996 employers surveyed said remote working had impacted employee productivity negatively, while 27 per cent said there had been a small negative impact. A further 15 per cent said home working during the pandemic had not impacted staff productivity. 

More than two-thirds of companies (67 per cent) said three-quarters (75 per cent) of their organisation was working remotely because of Covid-19. A majority (87 per cent) felt they now had the technology and resources in place to work productively and remotely for an extended period. This was despite just over half (56 per cent) of employers reporting less than a tenth of their workforce worked remotely before the crisis.

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Mark Crail, content director for XpertHR, said many people had become more engaged with their work during the lockdown, with the crisis demonstrating how viable widespread remote working was on a potentially permanent basis. He said HR had been critical in allowing people to juggle work and family responsibilities. 

"There is a real sense that people have thrown themselves into the challenge of home working and simply coped with the need to juggle work and childcare, to take part in online meetings despite internet connectivity issues, and to work round problems that arise," Crail said. 

"HR has played a huge part in making this possible, and has put lots of work into engaging with remote teams, equipping managers to work in new ways, supporting the mental health and wellbeing of those stuck at home, and keeping open the channels of communication."

Almost all (98 per cent) of employers surveyed by Willis Towers Watson said they were regularly communicating with staff to keep them updated and engaged, while 86 per cent said they had put in place measures to ensure workers felt supported by their manager or fellow team members.

However, the O2 research also found that some employees admitted to struggling while working remotely, with 30 per cent saying working from home can be lonely. Over a quarter (26 per cent) said they missed informal socialising with colleagues in the workplace. 

Gerwyn Davies, public policy adviser for the CIPD, said it was still too early for businesses to fully understand the impact lockdown has had on employee productivity, and urged caution in assuming productivity would be maintained if the same or similar levels of home working were implemented after lockdown. 

He warned employers should treat productivity data carefully because there were many variables that could affect it, such as high levels of staff absence and other "teething problems” that have come with such an abrupt change to working lifestyles. 

Increased levels of remote working post-crisis could be a silver lining to emerge from the outbreak, with many employers also attracted by the opportunity to cut real estate costs, he said. But he warned against reducing office space too radically to begin with because of the difficulty of anticipating whether productivity would be maintained.

"It's extremely likely that productivity will fall substantially in the second quarter of this year, whether that's made worse or not by home working is ultimately about employer perception," Davies said. 

"It will take some time for employers to assess whether productivity in their organisation has gone down following the lockdown because they will need to take a forensic look at any data they have to track productivity."

“Employers will quite like the cheapness of remote working; people will think this works and it saves overheads. But that will be an immediate issue a lot of businesses will need to think more carefully about,” agreed Martin Tiplady, CEO of Chameleon People Solutions and a former HR director.

“We’ve all tweaked our systems so people can be set up quickly, and they work because they are a stop gap. But their long-term sustainability is something different and will need careful thought.”