After a month of encouraging employers and staff in England to start repopulating their offices – with one minister even suggesting workers who continued to work from home might be more likely to face redundancy – in the closing weeks of September the prime minister pulled an abrupt U-turn. Facing a surge in the rate of infections, Boris Johnson said those who could should go back to working at home, before stressing that workers who were unable to – including those in the construction sector – could still go in, as long as their workplace was Covid secure.
The situation has escalated since then. The daily rate of infections is now on a par with the height of the outbreak in May, and the government recently announced a new tiered local lockdown system in England – bringing it more in line with the stricter rules in Scotland and Wales. Meanwhile Northern Ireland has announced a two-week ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown that would see schools close again.
However, the change in advice in England on working from home is still just that – advice. There is no legal obligation for employers to shut their offices as long as they are confident they are Covid secure. And many employers are in fact not closing their offices again, a People Management poll of 232 readers has revealed. While 42 per cent said they were keeping their offices open but discouraging their use, 51 per cent said their workplaces were open with no new restrictions in place. Just 7 per cent said they had shut their offices entirely.
Nor are offices sitting completely empty – the survey found 26 per cent still had more than three-quarters of their workforce attending the office at least occasionally, while 41 per cent had between 11 and 74 per cent of their staff coming in at least some of the time.
Employee wellbeing is likely to be a key reason behind this, says Kathleen Heycock, partner at Farrer & Co. “There are some people whose jobs don’t require them to be in the office, but for whom the office is the best place for them to work, even if only for a few days a week,” she says. “It would be a shame if offices that had slowly and safely opened up now completely shut down.”
Indeed, wellbeing was at the forefront of employers’ minds when the guidance changed. More than a third of respondents (68 per cent) cited managing staff wellbeing as one of the biggest challenges they faced in relation to the new guidance. Other challenges included maintaining collaboration and creativity (46 per cent) and helping managers oversee remote teams (39 per cent).
Dissatisfaction from staff about working from home (21 per cent) and confusion from staff about the changed guidance (49 per cent) were also cited as key challenges. Indeed some employers also reported finding the guidance somewhat unclear. Nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) felt the advice was either not very clear or not clear at all on whether employers were allowed to keep offices open. And half (51 per cent) found translating the guidance into a new strategy for where employees should work either not very straightforward or not at all straightforward.
Concerns aside, lockdown has made employers more confident about remote working. A survey by Management Today and Hays found 55 per cent of 280 business leaders polled were now more likely to consider hiring someone who did not live within commuting distance of the office, and so would work entirely or predominantly remotely. Businesses were also shown to be getting to grips with remote hiring: 67 per cent said they had recruited staff without a face-to-face interview, and 65 per cent found this just as effective as in-person hiring. But remote onboarding was still an issue, with 48 per cent saying it was less effective than a face-to-face induction.
So when are employers anticipating a full-scale return to the office? Just over half (51 per cent) of respondents to People Management’s poll anticipated they would start encouraging employees to return from the beginning of next year, although 42 per cent were not expecting this to happen until March at the earliest. Just 7 per cent thought they would have to wait until at least the summer before encouraging staff back to the office.
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Data from People Management survey of 232 employers, October 2020