Businesses may have formally returned the office, but what does that mean in practice? Many employees are resistant to resuming their five days at 9-5 in the office and are keen to maintain some of the work-life balance they have enjoyed in lockdown. Previous pet and child care arrangements have expired, and people are reluctant to search for new providers when they feel they have proven they are equally productive at home.
This does little to help employers – who now face the issue of building under-utilisation, while rent, heating and electricity must still be paid in full. Flexible or agile working is not new; most organisations will have an existing flexible working policy, but it probably wasn’t designed to cope with the masses of employees who now expect this way of working.
Managing a remote workforce is challenging, but it can be even more taxing and political when the team is split between home, hybrid and office. There are some tough decisions to be made this year as employers decide where they stand on this thorny issue. Many roles are not best suited to home working. Yet, employers face challenging negotiations with employees who are adamant they have demonstrated otherwise during the pandemic.
Employers are responsible for creating a safe workspace for employees – but where does this requirement end? Even if businesses wanted to, it's not as simple as saying everyone can work from home when they want to. During lockdown, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) stated that, due to the emergency measures in place, employers had no requirement to carry out workplace safety assessments for all employees. This relaxation in policy was temporary, but nearly three years on, many employees are still working in makeshift home environments that would not meet HSE standards.
One issue with hybrid working is duplication – are employers expected to establish an appropriate workstation for every employee at home and in the office – when both will only be utilised for half the week?
With remote working, employees can log in from anywhere. What does that mean for data security, and how can firms manage that risk? As Gallagher research shows, further guidance is needed on employees working abroad as one in four office workers intend to work from abroad this year, with a third doing so against company policy.
Working out the next step is a real challenge for employers, and many are currently piloting different models, but there isn't a nationwide logical solution that satisfies all parties. Some organisations have teams on rotas, with several members present each day, but this makes collaboration difficult, and the whole team is never together. On the flip side, other businesses may require employees to come in on set days (Tue-Thur, for example), but this wastes money on premises that no one uses for 2/5 of the working week.
If employees were originally contracted to work full-time in an office environment, is it unreasonable to expect them to return? Not technically, but there are certainly moral issues at play. Another aspect of COVID-19’s legacy is that it forced everyone to confront the importance of mental health and well-being in our day-to-day existence. Forcing someone back into the office against their will likely sit uncomfortably alongside new well-being policies.
In lockdown, the insurance industry panicked that it would face a tide of musculoskeletal claims related to poor home working practices. These have yet to materialise. However, while a workplace injury such as a slip or trip is demonstrable at the point of injury, as these claims relate to posture, they take time to manifest. Therefore they may still prove to be a problem, and this could affect employers’ premiums in the long term. Yet, people tend to work at home because they want to, so may be less likely to bring a claim against an employer who has facilitated their request.
One of the key questions from prospective employees is, will I be able to work flexibly? Employers risk creating friction and a two-tier system if they grant flexible arrangements to secure new talent while expecting existing employees to return to their contractual obligations. Currently, the power is with the employee; employers are worried about losing vital headcount if they are too stringent with their demands. The tide could change if employers in certain sectors showed a united front, but it would only take one company to offer different terms and conditions for the power balance to shift back.
No going back
Employers are in a difficult place and may have to be bold in their policy stance this year. Yet the path forward is far from clear, creating considerable discomfort for businesses. The problem has been compounded by the upheaval caused by the relentless industrial action of the past six months. Yet the world turns, and new ways of working and expectations evolve regardless of design; patterns are emerging across sectors – client events are now unlikely to take place on Mondays or Fridays, for example.
The flexible working arrangements tolerated during the pandemic are not fit for purpose for many organisations in the longer term. There is a sense that we owe more to the next generation entering the workplace. How can they learn from more experienced colleagues and understand how to conduct themselves in the workplace when they are still stuck in their bedroom on zoom calls all day? Yet a balance must be struck with the existing workforce, who deserve flexibility in their roles to align professional and personal commitments. Handled well, the decisions employers make now could achieve more than work-life balance, they could improve diversity and help to close the gender pay gap further, but there is an awful lot at stake.