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Exclusive data on returning staff to the office: how do you compare?

25 Aug 2020 By Francis Churchill

People Management’s poll finds a fifth are reopening workplaces from September and a third will oblige employees to come back in a certain number of days a week unless shielding

Boris Johnson’s plans to encourage more people back into the workplace have met a mixed response. The prime minister had hoped that, by putting the onus on to employers for deciding whether it was safe to ask staff to return in England, organisations would start to get back to normal.

Some of the biggest firms operating in England, including the likes of Google and NatWest Group, have already said they are allowing office staff to work from home until 2021. Other firms, including EY, have announced plans for phased returns.

However, despite the controversy that Johnson’s decision caused, a poll of HR professionals, conducted by People Management, found the majority welcomed being given the freedom to choose. Of the 463 readers polled, two-thirds (66 per cent) said it was the right decision to let businesses decide whether it was safe to bring staff back to the office, compared to 21 per cent who said it wasn’t (another 13 per cent said they didn’t know).

So when do employers anticipate asking staff to return to offices? And how do they intend to keep them safe? People Management’s exclusive data reveals...

When will staff return to the office?

Employers are taking a wide range of approaches in returning staff to the office. Nearly all of National Grid’s 4,000 office-based employees will continue to work from home. Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, which has 8,300 UK employees, has said it will start phasing staff who have been working from home back into the office in September. Similarly, accountancy firm EY will reopen its offices from 7 September at a reduced capacity.

This chimes with a plurality of responses to People Management’s poll. Most respondents said they were planning to send staff back to the office either from the beginning of September (21 per cent) or some time as of yet undecided in the autumn (21 per cent).

The rest of the responses were diverse: 15 per cent said they still didn’t know when they would bring office staff back to work, while another 15 per cent said they were planning to bring staff back some time in 2021.

One in 10 (10.4 per cent) said they had planned to have staff back at the beginning of August – much like Goldman Sachs, which has had around 1,000 employees in its London office since June.

Just 5 per cent of People Management readers said their staff could work from home permanently if they wanted to – joining the likes of tech company Facebook, which has said it would permanently embrace remote working and expected half of its employees to work remotely over the next five to 10 years.

How are employers approaching asking employees to return?

As suggested above, the majority of employers polled by People Management said they would implement a gradual return to the workplace, increasing the number of days staff were in the office over a period of time (59 per cent), introducing rotation systems so that different teams of staff were in on different days of the week (56 per cent) and staggering workers’ hours (42 per cent).

When asked how they would approach asking employees to come back to the office, the responses were nearly evenly split between obliging staff to come back in for a specified number of days a week unless shielding (31 per cent); encouraging staff to return but ultimately leaving the decision to them (30 per cent); and simply making the office available to staff but leaving the decision to them (32 per cent).

Just 8 per cent of respondents said they would oblige staff to come back to work for a specified number of days even if they were shielding.

The CIPD has consistently advised employers that when deciding whether to ask employees to return to work, they needed to consider whether it was essential and ensure that it was done with the consent of the workforce. “Employers should listen carefully to any concerns people may have about returning to work, including using public transport,” said Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser at the CIPD.

What changes have been made to office spaces?

Goldman Sachs reportedly checks the temperatures of its 1,000 staff who have returned to the office every day. This puts it in the minority of employers – just 22 per cent of those polled by People Management said they were making employees take temperature tests, with even fewer installing thermal cameras (5 per cent).

The most common adjustments to the workplace were to do with office layout, with more than two-thirds (69 per cent) of businesses reporting they had made changes to their office spaces to reduce the risk of infections – including moving workstations further apart (49 per cent) and encouraging staff to work back to back or side to side, rather than face to face (40 per cent).

The majority have also introduced a ban on hot-desking (54 per cent) – similarly to that which NatWest has imposed on its staff, for example. Just over one in 10 employers (14 per cent) are making the wearing of masks in the office mandatory, and 13 per cent intended to establish quarantine rooms for those taken ill at work. Only 1 per cent said they would be testing for the virus in the workplace.

Will there be more remote working in future?

As above, a minority of employers – including some big names such as Facebook and Schroders – will be allowing staff to work remotely every day if they want to on a permanent basis.

While not all employers are taking such a dramatic step, the majority of businesses polled by People Management were planning to hang on to the more flexible way of working introduced by the pandemic. Two-fifths of employers (43 per cent) expected to offer staff significantly more options for remote, home and flexible working once the crisis had abated, with an additional 47 per cent saying they would to some or a limited extent.

Similarly, 53 per cent of respondents said they anticipated reducing their office footprint in the long term following the crisis – with another 17 per cent saying they expected a limited reduction.

In comparison, just 10 per cent of respondents said they did not expect to increase flexible working after the outbreak had abated, while 30 per cent said they did not expect to reduce their office footprint.

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