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Returning to the office: what are other HR professionals doing?

25 May 2021 By Caitlin Powell

People Management surveyed more than 500 people practitioners and business leaders to find out their plans for bringing staff back as restrictions ease

The return to normality could be just weeks away. Across the country coronavirus restrictions have been easing and prime minister Boris Johnson confirmed last month that, as long as infection rates remained under control, he would drop the government’s advice that people in England should work from home if possible in mid-June.

As the return to the office becomes more of a tangible prospect, businesses that haven’t done so already need to start making decisions: will flexible working still be offered? What support will be made available to returning staff? And how can businesses make best use of their office space?

People Management polled 556 HR professionals and business leaders to find out what concerns both employees and employers have, and what organisations are already doing to prepare.

Most workers are optimistic about returning

The majority of those who responded to the People Management survey (83 per cent) said their workforce was broadly optimistic about returning. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t any concerns.

More than half of respondents (53 per cent) said their staff were worried about contracting coronavirus in the workplace, while more than two in five (43 per cent) said their employees were worried about contracting it on public transport.

Care provisions were also a central concern and, while childcare was a particularly prominent preoccupation (46 per cent), more than one in five (21 per cent) respondents also said their workforce was worried about maintaining care provisions for people other than children.

Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser for employment relations at the CIPD, said Covid was still an ongoing issue, and that work arrangements would continue to be disrupted – particularly for individuals with caring responsibilities for children or others in their lives.

“People's circumstances in some cases have changed over the past 15 months, so their needs will have changed”, said Suff, who urged employers to create frameworks for mental health support that included employee assistance programmes and occupational health.

Organisations needed to be "proactive in having those conversations [about support] and giving guidance to everybody about what procedures to keep them safe will be in play and what role they as individuals have got to play in that as well", she said.

More than three in five (62 per cent) HR professionals said their organisation would provide those returning from working from home with extra mental health support, while a third (34 per cent) said they would provide it for workers returning to the office from furlough. 

And more than half (57 per cent) said their organisation would provide those who had worked from home with training on Covid guidelines, while a third (35 per cent) said they would provide Covid guidelines training to furloughed workers. 

Continuation of flexible working after returning is a mixed bag

When asked what their message would be when government guidance to work from home is lifted, the majority (94 per cent) of respondents to People Management’s poll said staff would be able to go into the office, including two in five (40 per cent) who said staff would be able to go in on days specifically chosen by them, and a third (35 per cent) who said workers would be able to go in on days allocated to them by the organisation.

Just 15 per cent of respondents said they planned to make office attendance mandatory, and 4 per cent said staff were only required to go into the office for meetings.

Similarly, three in five (61 per cent) respondents said their organisation would provide additional flexibility such as flexible hours for those returning to the office from home working, while more than a quarter (27 per cent) said they would provide flexibility to those returning to the office from furlough. Just 6 per cent said they planned to reduce flexible work options.

Responding to a question around how organisations would manage employees who did not want to return to the office at all, more than two in five (43 per cent) said they would require a minimum number of days attending the office, while a similar proportion (40 per cent) said they would support home working as long as staff were able to commit to frequent office visits for meetings.

How time will be spent was also a concern for employees, according to survey respondents, with more than half (57 per cent) reporting that their workforce was worried about the extra time taken up by commuting after returning to the office, while more than two-fifths (44 per cent) were concerned about reverting to more structured hours.

Gemma Dale, co-founder of The Work Consultancy, said giving people autonomy in when and how they worked allowed for a productive workforce. “When people have got lots of control, and lots of autonomy, that's a good predictor for wellbeing and good mental health,” she said.

However, she warned that the adoption of flexible working was moving at a glacial pace, and that it would be foolish to assume just because some companies were applying flexible working that every organisation would follow suit.

“Think about flexibility in its broadest sense,” Dale said, urging employers to consider offering arrangements such as flexible hours, and not just the option of working from home.

Employers also needed to support managers to understand the practicalities of managing flexible teams, she said, and to support workers in managing their work-life balance while working flexibly.

Many are planning for more collaborative offices

Two in five (42 per cent) respondents to People Management’s survey said their organisations had no plans to change their current location and/or usage of their office after the Covid pandemic. However, a similar number (43 per cent) said they were planning to keep their office spaces but change their usage; for example, by making them more collaborative and having fewer fixed desks.

Additionally, a fifth of survey respondents (22 per cent) said they were planning to encourage the use of co-working spaces.

When asked whether their workforces were supportive of planned changes to how their organisations used their office, almost all respondents (95 per cent) said they were.

Claire Campbell, programme director at flexible working consultancy Timewise, suggested there had been a shift towards flexible working options such as hot desking, and urged employers to maintain a regular conversation at both team and senior levels when it came to returning to the workplace.

Ideally, Campbell said, any measures put in place around offices needed to focus on employee satisfaction and engagement, and not just on desk usage. “We know a lot of organisations have tried to measure productivity in the last 12 months and found a more positive benefit from working at home than expected, so let's not lose that when we get back to the office,” she said.

Campbell advised businesses to treat the return to the office like an experiment. “We can learn, adapt and change as things return,” she said. “It’s not an overnight switch to whatever the new world is – it's going to be a 12 to 18-month process.”

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