Will you order your employees to go to the office?

As the PM encourages us back to work, a survey of UK businesses indicates regular working from home could double from pre-lockdown levels.

by Maggie Baska
Last Updated: 17 Jul 2020

Employers expect the number of staff working from home in the future to double in comparison to pre-pandemic levels, research has found, despite government plans to start getting office staff back into workplaces from August. 

Almost two in five (37 per cent) employees will be working from home on a regular basis once the crisis is over, according to employer predictions made as part of CIPD research, compared to just a fifth (18 per cent) who did so before lockdown. 

Additionally, businesses expected the proportion of staff working from home all the time to increase from 9 per cent before the pandemic to 22 per cent. 

In the CIPD research, which surveyed 1,046 UK employers, organisations reported the average proportion of the workforce conducting their roles from home continuously was more than half (54 per cent). 

In response to this expected increase in home working, the CIPD has called on the government to make the right to request flexible working a day-one right for all employees. Currently, employees must have worked for the same employer for at least 26 weeks to be eligible for flexible working. 

As part of the Queen’s Speech in 2019, the government announced it would consult on whether to make flexible working the default working arrangement, taking the onus off employees to request this. The proposal would see employers having to make all roles flexible unless there was a sound business case for why the role could not be done flexibly. 

At the end of last week health secretary Matt Hancock suggested the right to work from home could be more strongly enshrined in law as a result of the pandemic having demonstrated how successful mass home working could be. Hancock revealed the potential legal shake-up in a web chat with members of women’s club AllBright, where he said home working should be “the norm”.

But this coincided with prime minister Boris Johnson today urging Britons to go back to work if they could, shifting the emphasis from current official guidance, in place since March, to work from home where possible.

Johnson set out the next steps for easing lockdown and returning to relative normality as early as November, encouraging people in England to use public transport outside of rush hour, with August earmarked for the introduction of a new system for travel networks as it is usually the quietest period.

"Instead of government telling people to work from home, we are going to give employers more discretion, and ask them to make decisions about how their staff can work safely," he said.

It mirrors the stance Johnson took during prime minister’s questions this week, when he said employers should decide along with workers when it was safe to go back to the office and where they should continue working from home. He told ministers this week that Whitehall staff would "set an example" by returning to work, with plans being worked on currently to send thousands of civil servants back to their offices in the coming weeks.

Tread carefully

Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, said coronavirus will have a long-lasting effect on how people in the UK work, with a step change in the proportion of people working from home on a regular basis. He acknowledged the shift would “disrupt some existing patterns of economic activity” – such as money spent on commuting to offices and in cafes and other city centre businesses – but this would ultimately benefit both employers and employees.

“Greater use of home working will make work more accessible and sustainable for all, particularly for people with caring responsibilities and those with mobility or health concerns,” Cheese said. “This shift will support and encourage employers to recruit and retain a more diverse workforce, which is good for the economy and society at large.”

Cheese warned many employers still needed to improve how they managed and supported people who worked from home regularly, increase the range and uptake of other forms of flexible working, and support a wider shift to more flexible workplaces in the future. 

However, Jude Read, managing director of Jude Read-HR Consultancy, said she could understand why the government and some employers were keen to get people back to offices, with working from home not ideal for all organisations. “Employers have had no choice but to adopt ways of working for the purpose of business continuity and to remain competitive within the market they operate,” Read said. 

“But some businesses are unable to accommodate working from home because of the nature of what they do, namely factories, production and manufacturing industries. So then there’s the issue with fairness and perceived fairness potentially driving a divide in the workforce, where mainly office-based employees can work from home yet those on the shop floor must attend work each day.” 

However, Read conceded that many businesses that would not have considered flexible working in the past had now discovered it could in fact work well for them long term. To make it a success post lockdown, HR must ensure staff were treated fairly and home working policies were in place to prevent burnout among staff, she said.

“Managers will need to be trained to understand how home working may affect employees in both positive and negative ways and to know the warning signs,” Read said. “A requirement to attend the office regularly will help to maintain employee engagement and ultimately benefit the business.”

The CIPD survey found 44 per cent of employers reported putting in place additional measures or spend to support home working in future. Of these, two-thirds (66 per cent) planned to change their policies to reflect a move to more home working, and 46 per cent were looking to invest in line manager training on supporting and managing home workers. 

A third (33 per cent) planned to introduce new forms of flexible working, including: working from home on a regular basis (70 per cent); always working from home (45 per cent); part-time hours (40 per cent); flexi-time (39 per cent); compressed hours (25 per cent); and term-time working (16 per cent). 

This article first appeared on our sister title People Management

Image credit: Bethany Mollenkof/Contributor via Getty Images

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