No answers as yet on how workforce will return to the workplace - Mandy Laurie

According to the Office for National Statistics, in April 2020 almost half of UK employees (46.6 per cent) did some homeworking, with 86 per cent having done so as a result of the pandemic.
Mandy Laurie is a Partner, Burness PaullMandy Laurie is a Partner, Burness Paull
Mandy Laurie is a Partner, Burness Paull

Such a seismic shift in working patterns would have taken decades to develop naturally. As we emerge from lockdown, employers are asking questions about how to bring their workforce back into the office.

The majority of businesses are planning for a ‘hybrid’ or ‘blended’ return to work, meaning employees who are able to will likely split their working time between the office and home. Many large companies have opted for hybrid models, with a 2/3 day split seeming to be the preferred option.

But how do employers actually implement it?

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The main issue lies in achieving the right balance between giving employees enough flexibility while retaining some form of control and oversight. Many employees have reported an increase in wellbeing and productivity as a result of homeworking, but this won’t necessarily be the case in every department or business.

Performance management has largely been put on pause, but thought needs to be given as to how proper supervision can operate within a flexible working practice.

Will staff coming into the office be required to be present from 9 to 5, or can they tailor their hours to avoid the dreaded commute and overcrowded lift? If not enough flexibility is given, employers risk losing talent to competitors.

According to a recent study by IWFM, two-thirds of 18-24 year-olds admitted that not being offered flexible working patterns would cause them to look for a new job. Many businesses plan to reduce their office floor-space, which is not only cost-effective but better for the planet too.

More focus will be placed on the purpose of offices, with large areas dedicated to ‘collaboration spaces’ and meeting rooms, reducing the number of actual, individual desks. Desk-booking apps and lockers are being used to assist with hot-desking, and moveable furniture can help make the office more adaptable.

However, there are concerns about a growing division between those who can work from home, and those who cannot.

There is a perception that homeworking is a ‘benefit’, with a survey of 5000 employees in Britain revealing the average employee considers working from home a perk worth six per cent of wages.

Indeed, many of us shudder at the thought of returning to the cramped commute on the train, the queue for the coffee machine or that neighbouring colleague’s growing mug collection. This workforce division is exacerbated by the fact that homeworkers tend to be better paid and more highly-qualified, confirmed by a recent Office for National Statistics study.

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This isn’t surprising given the nature of non-professional roles, but it is having a wider impact on society. The study showed more affluent areas had much higher rates of homeworking, compared with less affluent areas. It also found the sickness absence rate was more than double for non-homeworkers.

However, it's important to remember homeworking isn’t without its disadvantages. The ONS study found those who had done some work from home had higher rates of unpaid overtime and worked longer hours.

The study also looked at the effect of homeworking pre-2020, and found that employees who mainly worked from home were much less likely to be promoted or receive a bonus, perhaps because they are less visible to managers.

The professional development of those working from home cannot be forgotten about, particularly for new or junior members of staff.

This last point is particularly poignant when considering the gender pay gap. Before the pandemic, the percentage of part-time employment among working women was very high, thought to be due to the burden of care largely falling on them.

This burden was exacerbated at the start of the pandemic by the closure of schools, nurseries and childcare facilities. Mothers are more likely than fathers to reduce their working hours, switch to homeworking or attempt to juggle childcare whilst working, and this all contributes to the gender pay gap – which shouldn’t be allowed to grow.

It is clear that all businesses, from all different kinds of sectors, are grappling with the same issues – and nobody really has the answers just yet.

Mandy Laurie is a Partner, Burness Paull



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