Should all employees be returning to the workplace?
For the last fourteen months, many people will have been working from home. Whilst not quite solitary confinement (particularly if home-schooling too, or sharing the home office with your partner, for example), it is a different set-up to being with colleagues in a shared workplace.
Having endless meetings over Zoom is not a substitute—practically, emotionally and creatively—for in-person contact. Virtual meetings are practical and ultra-convenient, but the screen only emphasises the physical distance between attendees. It’s difficult to bounce ideas off each other when no one can use body language to ascertain their turn to speak; you can’t collectively gauge approval/disapproval of a suggestion when everyone is just a thumbnail.
As I write, the restrictions have lifted to allow people to eat inside pubs and restaurants, to stay in hotels and B&Bs, to take the kids to soft play and to visit the cinema. Many more people, therefore, will be returning to the workplaces.
The official advice for those that can work from home—say, those that work in offices—is to continue doing so. However, some employers are finding this advice a little stifling, given the low risk of spreading the virus on their premises due to the safety measures they’ve put in place.
Whilst there’s no doubt that employees working remotely could reduce costs for a business, not every company sees this solution as permanent. Many are happy to offer flexible working, going forward, with a hybrid version involving both home and office. That said, there are some projects and scenarios that can be more difficult to carry out remotely, e.g. product demonstrations, introductory client meetings, creative/innovation sessions, inductions and some practical skills training…the list could go on.
The government is currently reviewing their stance on the issue, with experts suggesting that June 21st will give employers the green light to insist on workers coming back to the office when all other restrictions (hopefully) lift. Though employees, at that point, can request to continue working remotely, their employer is not legally obliged to grant permission. A change in the official line is therefore likely to prompt some difficult conversations.
People’s positions on this subject differ; it’s not a unanimous, across the board feeling that we should remain at home. Some workers have likened the situation to solitary confinement, particularly those who live alone. This section of the nation’s workforce, and plenty of others, can’t wait to get back to the office.
However, there are also many people who have found working from home, beneficial, they have not missed the two-hour commute, squeezed onto packed trains or sitting on the motorway. The jury is still out….. but many research reports conclude that approximately one-third of the working population want to return full-time to the workplace, a further third would prefer to stay working remotely full-time and the remaining third would like the autonomy of a hybrid model.
Naturally, there are plenty of office workers who are nervous about returning to a shared workplace and mixing with their colleagues while the virus is still prevalent. Given, however, that we may have to live with Covid in our midst for many years, this may be a fear they will need to come to terms with if they do not wish to risk their position with the company they work for. Whilst employers can’t physically drag staff members into the office if they request them to work from the shared workplace and Covid is cited by the employee as a reason not to do so, it may not reflect well on the employee—especially if all their colleagues are happy to return. That said, the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) says: ‘Employers have a duty of care to all their staff and [must] treat people reasonably and fairly… and be as flexible as possible when dealing with any concerns people have.’
The employer must ensure their staff’s safety in respect of social distancing and further spread of the virus, and probably will still be impressed upon to do so even when restrictions fully lift. If, as an employee, you feel that your employer is not exercising the minimum duty of care in this respect, then there may well be good reason to insist that remote working continues. If all measures have been met and the workplace is a safe space to be, however, towards the end of June, this stance may do your career more harm than good.
However, employers who are insisting that all employees return full-time to the workplace may be putting their reputation at risk. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development believe that good work is fundamental to individual well-being, supports a strong, fair society and creates motivated workers, productive organisations and a strong economy. CIPD believe that “Good Work” is
- is fairly rewarded gives people the means to securely make a living
- allows for work-life balance gives opportunities to develop and ideally a sense of fulfilment
- provides a supportive environment with constructive relationships
- gives employees the voice and choice they need to shape their working lives
- is physically and mentally healthy.
- and should be accessible to all, regardless of personal characteristics or occupation
Over the last year, employees have found a new sense of autonomy, they have become used to having a voice and being involved in the decision making about their working lives. Many people have benefited from flexible working hours which they could fit around their family commitments, for example, parents have liked being at home when their children return home from school. These benefits are not going to be given up easily and employers who insist on everyone returning to their workplace full-time may find they start to lose their best talent.
Going forward, leaders and managers may have difficulty adjusting to a different way of thinking about work and the workplace. A whole new mindset and skill set is required. No longer should we be thinking in terms of work-life balance we are now in the age of work-life integration, as the boundaries between work and life grow ever more blurred and flexible.
Rebuilding the organisational culture and team cohesion within a hybrid structure will present challenges for sure. Relationships with line managers, colleagues and subordinates will all require higher levels of emotional intelligence. Only when there is an equity of social skills across all managers and leaders within organisations will real progression and growth be made.
One thing that leaders could capitalise on, to begin building back better, is the shared experience of the pandemic which has affected everybody in some way. We’ve all lived through it. Have team members talk about the last fourteen months in their life, as it will be a good way for them to bond and reconnect with each other.
Reaffirm the end goal and aims of the organisation. It’s clear now, more than ever, that every single one of us, from the cleaner to the CEO, plays their part in a company’s success. Again, a shared outlook, a connection. Focus on the positives: discuss the skills people have gained during the pandemic and by remote working—from practical/technical skills to soft skills, such as empathy, time management and self-discipline, stress management and resilience. Use these soft skills to ensure new team members and those who remain working from home feel included and a valued part of the team.
As humans, the need to communicate and connect is hard-wired. We may have got out of the habit because of Covid; however, it wouldn’t take much for those connections to reform. In fairness, this process would occur much faster in person, but our empathy must also come into play if employees prefer to work remotely within a hybrid structure
We’ve never lived through a global pandemic before, and it’s worth remembering that. This is all new ground—for employers, employees, leaders and managers. Solutions are not instant and iron-clad, either; the situation is constantly moving and will continue to do so for a long time to come.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. The cohesion of your team may take time, too.
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