The latest development in the UK Government’s attempts to contain the spread of the coronavirus leaves businesses of all sorts and sizes in something of a quandary as to how to respond. Having started what were in many cases complex arrangements for some sort of return to their workplaces, employers are not just having to put those plans on hold but also having to contend with such issues as employee wellbeing, lack of motivation and the detrimental impact on corporate culture — all of which will be made worse if this new phase lasts as long as the original lockdown. Moreover, research published this week by the professional networking company LinkedIn indicates that leaders are concerned that the longer employees work from home, the harder it will be to get them back into offices.
LinkedIn surveyed more than 250 senior executives at UK organizations with 1,000 or more employees and annual turnover of more than £250 million. One of the key findings was that 68% of those responding said that employees have become fearful about workplace safety, with 38% expecting resistance to a return to the office. Prior to the new guidance, which amounts to an about-turn on the policy of encouraging office workers to return to the workplace, leaders were focused on getting their people back into offices. According to LinkedIn, half of CEOs were preparing for a return to workplaces, with 46% expecting some employees to return to offices in the next one to two months, and nearly a third expecting all employees back within the next six months.
Among the factors prompting leaders to press ahead with office reopening were concern about remote working leading to company culture being diluted, fears for employee mental health as a result of working on their own and worries that employees might be demotivated and bored by not being in an office structure.
A similar picture is apparent at smaller companies. According to Nic Redfern, finance director of the financial product comparison site KnowYourMoney.co.uk, UK small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) see an opportunity for substantial savings on such things as employee travel, cleaning costs and catering for employees and clients as well as on rent by having staff working remotely. However, he also points out that there are substantial costs involved in ensuring staff can continue to work from home, ranging from providing laptops or similar devices to ensuring that adequate cybersecurity systems capable of handling increasing amounts of confidential data are in place.
Leaders of smaller businesses also share the concerns of their counterparts at larger organizations about employee wellbeing. “Protecting staff will be a priority for employers, and whilst some employees will welcome the prospect of prolonged working from home, others may not be so keen,” says Redfern. He quotes a recent survey that suggested that more than one in five employees working from home struggle to “switch off” at the end of the day. A further fifth struggle with feelings of loneliness while working from home, while nearly as many miss interacting with their colleagues. As a result, employers that maintain remote working for the foreseeable future must dedicate resources to ensuring staff remain happy, healthy and motivated. This may come in the form of work socials via Zoom; sending care packages to staff or arranging weekly 1:1 ‘check in’ meetings with management, adds Redfern.
The LinkedIn research suggests that the larger organizations, too, are preparing for a future in which remote working figures strongly. Some of the changes being considered include introducing flexible working hours to better support working parents and those with dependents (41%) and giving employees greater options around working from home (49%).
With interest in remote working seemingly matched by interest in moving away from the large cities where office work is traditionally done, it is fair to say that the pandemic is helping to bring about a fundamental shift in attitudes towards work. There has been a lot of talk in recent years about employees being able to show their “whole selves” at work. But recent months have demonstrated to leaders what this means in practice — often juggling family demands with those of the job in uncertain circumstances. And it is now up to them to create the sort of workplaces that will make people want to join their organisations.
As Redfern says, each business will have a different approach to the Government’s ever-changing guidance. For some, it simply may not be feasible to prolong remote working. In this case, measures must be taken to ensure staff feel safe enough to return to work. But extended health and safety policies or allowing staff to work flexible hours might also be considered. He adds: “Ultimately, employers must do what they feel is right to ensure the safety of their employees and the long-term survival of their business. There will never be a one-size-fits-all solution to this issue, so employers will need to factor in all financial and wellness implications before making their final decision.”