Majority of employees want to work from home for most of the week, research finds

Poll reveals more than half of workers are still reluctant to return to the office, but experts say suggestions that home working will become the norm are 'premature'

More than half of employees want to work from home for most of the week, according to new research – an almost six-fold rise since the start of lockdown.

The survey of 4,500 people conducted by Zurich Insurance, the results of which were released yesterday, revealed 59 per cent of people would still prefer to spend more than half their working week at home, despite government calls for office-based workers to return. 

Just 10 per cent of employees had this working pattern prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

Employees have been under increasing pressure to go back since July, when prime minister Boris Johnson urged people to "start to go back to work now if you can”.

However, there is little sign of a shift back to the office, with the number of people returning to offices having flatlined for the past two months. 

Footfall across more than 60 of the UK’s largest town and city centres was 17 per cent of pre-lockdown levels at the end of June, and remained at that level throughout August, according to an analysis by Center for Cities of mobile phone tracking data.

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And the estimated number of train journeys across Britain on Monday was 33 per cent of normal levels, according to data released by the Department for Transport this week.

Anxiety over returning to the office soared throughout the early stages of lockdown, according to an analysis of Google search data released by workforce management solutions provider Mitrefinch.

It found that UK searches for the term ‘do I have to go back to work?’ rose by 4,000 per cent, while searches for ‘fear of returning to work’ rose by 200 per cent. Similar searches for ‘safe workplace’; ‘employee health and safety’; and ‘health and safety practices in the workplace’ all doubled.

Zurich’s findings have prompted the company to offer flexible working options to its entire workforce.

Steve Collinson, HR director for Zurich UK, said: “Whilst there’s no silver bullet for how and where people work, we know they want the flexibility to work the hours that suit.”

“Not everyone wants to work from home five days a week forever. In effect, they want the best of all worlds, which is perfectly fine.”

And it appears workers’ concerns over the safety of returning to the office are still legitimate. Professor Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, warned yesterday of an increase Covid-related hospital admissions in recent days, and called on the government and employers to consider a “pause at the headlong rush to get everybody back into offices.”

The difficulties of making workplaces ‘Covid secure’ have also been highlighted, after it emerged yesterday that the Health and Safety Executive found management at a Department for Work and Pensions office in Leeds, where there have been two confirmed cases of Covid-19, had failed to ensure social distancing was maintained.

However, it would be “premature” to suggest that home working will become the norm, according to Mark Stuart, professor of human resource management and employment relations at the University of Leeds. 

“Home working is more workable in some sectors than others and for certain types of workers than others. Not all employees want to work from home indefinitely; it can create tensions in terms of work-life reconciliation, for example isolation, and there are the obvious technical issues.”

He added that firms needed to “give serious thought to the design of their home working policy”. 

And Ed Griffin, director of HR consultancy and research at the Institute of Employment Studies, warned that tensions between staff may arise from the shift in working patterns: “You could start to see a two-track workforce of those who may be resenting being in the office but actually they are getting the exposure, they are getting the contact that may help them develop faster, and have better opportunities, versus those who may feel both excluded but also challenged.”