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The Future of the office

Article by Charlotte Smith

After more than 12 months of remote working, what do employees feel about remote working and the return to the office? And how can this help HR leaders shape their business’ approach?

Remote working survey results
To get a better understanding of peoples’ experiences, wants and needs, Walker Morris partnered with Leeds University Business School on a survey covering a range of issues relating to home working and the return to work.

The results, both quantitative and qualitative, demonstrated that a ‘one size fits all’ approach is unlikely to work. When it comes to returning to the office, 31% of workers aged between 18-24 said they wanted to spend at least 80% of their time in the office to maximise opportunities for training and development and to socialise or collaborate with their colleagues. Interestingly, and in stark contrast, 31% of those aged between 30-34 responded that they wanted to spend less than 18% of their time in the office. The survey also revealed a significant difference in outlook depending on the gender of the respondent. Among those who wanted to spend 80-100% of their week at the office 66% were men and only 34% were women.

The survey found that the majority of employees had adapted to their new working arrangements quickly, with many enjoying an increased sense of autonomy. We also learnt that a significant number of respondents felt they had more flexibility in the way they organised their working day and were actually more productive working at home. People are enjoying the freedom to spend more time with family as well as spending more time on wellbeing-related activities like exercise. Unsurprisingly and almost universally, respondents commented on the positives of not having to travel to work – not only in respect of the time gained but also the positive impact on the environment.

The survey did, however, highlight some of the negatives of home working. Employees with families found it difficult to juggle their work/life balance; learning to use new tools and technologies such as videoconferencing (and frustrations over sluggish broadband) created ‘technostress’; and a rising tide of email traffic, in a seeming 24/7 world of work, was felt to be a contributor to a negative impact on performance and wellbeing.

So, what steps should employers take to ensure that the return to the workplace is beneficial for both staff and the business, and what future-proofing strategies should be considered?

Flexibility is key
It is likely that, for many businesses, remote working will remain in place to varying degrees indefinitely. We have already seen some employers move to a fully flexible agile working policy – allowing employees to determine where and, to an extent, when they work.  Provided that parameters are clearly set and there is effective communication with managers, this is a model that can work to foster trust between employers and employees.

This doesn’t mean that the office is obsolete – as we have seen from the survey results, working from the office is still the preferred way of working for some employees, particularly those seeking to demarcate home and work life; and there will of course be instances where meetings and training, particularly for junior employees, are more effective in person.

This may lead businesses to consider how property and offices can be utilised effectively, including projects involving shared spaces to foster collaboration. Continued investment in technology and digitalisation will also remain key, both in the office itself and also to bolster the business’ remote capabilities – including training to combat that ‘technostress’.

Mental health and wellbeing
Mental health and staff wellbeing remains a priority. As reported in our survey, many of us have been blurring the lines between work and home life. We are also arguably already in the midst of a mental health crisis; with the effects of the pandemic likely to be felt in the long-term.

Employers will need to ensure employees are getting adequate rest and not exceeding weekly working limits – this might be done by investing in monitoring systems and putting new guidelines and practices in place.  Managers and HR professionals should be encouraged to engage with staff openly and set an example in balancing home and work life. Initiatives might include celebrating achievements beyond work; organising regular social catch ups; and encouraging employees to access resources, such as mental health first aiders, employee assistance programmes and resilience training.

Communication on the return to the workplace is critical, especially for those who are concerned about the potential health risks of returning to the office (and listening to those concerns in a genuine way is important): another reason why a ‘one size fits all’ approach is unlikely to work.

Changing practices and effective management
There will be a need to ensure consistency between the treatment of those spending a significant amount of time in the office and those spending more time at home. This is particularly the case given the difference in outlook between genders within the survey results. Some managers may (perhaps unintentionally) use ‘face-time’ as a measure of success or diligence – therefore a change in attitude and culture may be needed.

Employers should consider how to effectively evaluate performance when working from home. For example, by offering managers training on leadership in a virtual world, introducing comprehensive home-working policies, and implementing technology to monitor output.

Transforming the approach to homeworking can also include a focus on positives such as: the business’ ability to recruit from a wider pool of talent (including internationally) – which could foster a more diverse workforce; the positive impact on the environment which will assist businesses in meeting sustainability goals; better utilisation of employees’ time and greater job-satisfaction; and the increased use of technology enabling access to clients and customers across the world.

What next?
There are many considerations for employers when it comes to the future of work, ranging from ethical questions on when (or if) you should monitor staff productivity when they are remote working, to practical queries on dealing with flexible working requests or concerns as people return to the workplace.

Whatever businesses decide a return to the office will look like for them, they’ll need to ensure it enables employees to work safely and productively, meeting their obligations as an employer to support staff’s welfare and foster a culture of trust and encouragement.

    Charlotte Smith advises on all aspects of employment law and has developed close relationships with clients – particularly in the food, drink and manufacturing sectors. She also works closely with a number of Premier League and English Football League Clubs.

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