Long reads

How HR is handling getting back to the office

15 Jul 2021 By Eleanor Whitehouse

People Management has assembled a panel of senior people practitioners to share how far they’ve got with returning, and the challenges they’re facing. We’ll check in with them over the coming months to find out how they’re getting on

“At the minute, until restrictions lift, people who aren’t frontline can come in through choice, and roughly a third are making use of that. We’ve just put out an agile working policy, so we’re not going to be stipulating anything too concrete in terms of how often we expect people to be in the office – we’re going to be quite flexible with it depending on what works for teams. Our call handling team will work on a rota basis in the office, but our other functions will be more flexible.

We’re going to be quite open minded about how that works, and put quite a lot of trust in managers, but we’ve deliberately not mandated it. A lot of organisations are saying they expect at least three days in the office, but we’re not doing that.

Pre-pandemic the organisation hadn’t embraced remote working, and there’s a mixture of outlooks on it among different managers and departments. Lots of colleagues have said it’s nice to see the organisation moving with the times and embracing agile working.”

– Sarah Dewar, chief people officer at Mental Health Concern


“We’re articulating that permanent remote working isn’t part of our culture and if that is the culture staff want, they won’t find it within our organisation. We have to be thinking about people who are out in the field waist-deep in mud and water 24/7 so we need to have that culture across the whole organisation, not just one part of it.

The majority of our employees are comfortable with returning to work full time if restrictions lift on 19 July because they understand the nature of our business is 24/7, but we do have a small group who wonder why they can’t continue working from home full time. Our next steps are to communicate what will change in the office once restrictions are lifted and what will remain the same such as desk layout, the use of face masks and one way systems.”

– Neil Morrison, group HR director at Severn Trent Water


“We know from asking our people that they want a mix – taking the best of being in the office and blending it with what we’ve learnt about remote working. So we’ve introduced smart working to give our people and their leaders guidance on how and where they work. The framework includes five profiles based on the type of role they do, what is involved in it and how often – and why – a colleague might need to be in the office and the facilities they need to do their job.

The way we use our offices will evolve to become more collaborative spaces, less about rows of desks, but our approach will continue to evolve as we return to the office and learn what works. Being agile is really important in maximising the benefits of this shift – organisations need to balance providing frameworks and guidance that are role based and remove bias while remaining flexible enough to evolve.”

– Danny Harmer, chief people officer at Aviva


“6,000 of our 19,000 staff would usually be based in an office, and the majority haven’t yet returned. The Scottish roadmap means all restrictions are planned to be lifted in August. So we could be looking at everyone returning to the office then, but we’re more likely to do it sporadically based on people’s roles.

The bigger question is whether we should change how we deliver some of our services. We may see some teams working remotely on an ongoing basis. So as well as tracking what the government says, we’re considering what we might want to do as an organisation. Last time we surveyed colleagues, about two-thirds were interested in a form of hybrid. As long as we can deliver the right outcomes for the people of Edinburgh, how we do our work doesn’t have to be the same in future.”

– Dr Stephen Moir, executive director of workforce at The City of Edinburgh Council


“We’re starting to promote a message to employees about returning to the office and have set a tentative date for mid-August. We decided on some key points, such as employees should work with their managers to determine when, where and how often to come into the office and that we are looking into a number of options to support our growing team. 

Next week, we’re going to discuss converting some of our office space into additional lab space to accommodate this, and also go over two reservation systems that will be used to reserve offices and cubicles. 

We plan to work with a furniture vendor to redesign cubicles, offices and meeting rooms and smaller things, like how to deal with assigned phone numbers but unassigned physical phones on desks.”

– Kunjan Zaveri, HR lead UK at TCR² Therapeutics 


“We launched our Flex Appeal policy last year, which means that people can choose where and how they work. Our offices are available for anyone who wants them, but if they never want to set foot in an office again, that’s fine. We have no expectations, but it’s up to managers and teams to make a plan that works for them. There’s never a situation where it’s a problem if someone chooses not to be in the office.

We have more people consistently in our London office at the minute, but we’ve only just opened it and it’s a relatively new team. Our Reading office is bigger, and that feels fairly empty right now. It’s got a capacity of 30 currently, which we’ll remove when we’re able to, but I don’t think we’ll get loads more people coming in. Not being in the office suits people.”

– Hannah Howe, HR director at Austin Fraser


“Lots of our staff are in roles that can’t be done from home, but we’ve got about 80 who can, and have been during the pandemic. Even though we’ve proven we can work from home, do we perform better at home? No, we don’t. We’re not saying people aren’t performing, but we’ve found when bringing the team back in, that they’re performing much better in the office together.

As long as the government doesn’t change any more rules, everyone will come back one day a week from July, two days from August and three days from September. Then people can put in a request to work a maximum of two days a week from home. I think people expected us to say they had to come back five days a week, so hopefully they’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

– Laura Ibbotson, UK HR manager at Heras


“Only 12 per cent of our staff are in our London office on any given day – the rest are working from home. This is mainly those whose roles can’t be done from home or whose circumstances mean it’s beneficial. 

The majority of our UK employees have opted for a formal flexi-working arrangement with most working two or three days from home. Some are already working this arrangement officially, and this will increase as lockdown measures relax. We aren’t mandating the days, but we have asked that staff come into the office for key meetings and client interactions. We don’t want to let legacy policies and thinking stand in the way of us giving our clients a world-class experience, so we’re also looking to make our offices more open plan.”

– Fenil Khiroya, head of HR UK at Standard Chartered Bank


“Only in the last few weeks have we seen people going back into the office, perhaps one day a week. We’re one of those old school companies that had a desk and a desktop computer for every member of staff, so we’ve made the decision to reconfigure the office and go down to 50 per cent desks and make better use of our space. We’ll have desks for those who need to be there, but it’ll be via a booking system, and we’re trialling some software at the minute.

In terms of a wider return, we’ve been following the government’s advice. The desks are now ready for when people want to use them, and I sense that we’re not going to get a flood of people back when restrictions are lifted. People won’t think we’re serious about the changes in the office until they see it for themselves, but I hope they’ll be pleased.”

– Tim Scott, chief people officer at Fletchers Solicitors

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