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Andrew Whiteaker
Andrew Whiteaker,
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Coming out of Lockdown – ONS “WFH” report published
21 April 2021

As spring rolls on and the UK continues to experience relaxations in the COVID rules many businesses who have been operating remotely for the last year are currently engaged in planning how they will operate once it is possible to return large numbers of employees to the office. 

Return to Work

The news has been full of the plans of high-profile business, with their differing approaches demonstrating a divergence of opinion in what the future of work should look like. Although it has been at the forefront of the remote working movement Google has recently announced that from 1 September 2021 any employee who wishes to work out of the office for more than 14 days per year will need to formally apply for permission. Conversely Facebook have stated that it considers home working to be the future and is planning to allow its employees to continue working from home. With these and other conflicting announcements from industry it is clear that each individual business will need to draw up its own plans, and many may come to different decisions even when faced with similar circumstances. 

ONS Report

It was therefore convenient timing for the Office For National Statistics to publish this week its report on homeworking, rewards and opportunities in the UK from 2011 to 2020. As may be expected, the report found that of the employed population, 35.9% did some work at home in 2020, an increase of 9.4 percentage points compared with 2019. Also, as it is easier to undertake office jobs at home rather than those in manufacturing or retail where wages may on average be lower, the average gross weekly pay of workers who had recently worked from home was about 20% higher in 2020 than those who never worked from home in their main job. 

However for businesses looking to incorporate more remote working into their future plans there were also some important findings which highlight the need to carefully manage the potential two-tier workforce consisting of those who will work more frequently in the office and those who will attend the office less regularly. 

Two-Tier Workforce

Firstly, the report identified that for the period between 2017 and 2020 those who mainly worked from home were less than half as likely to be promoted than all other workers. Also it found that for the period 2013 to 2020 people who mainly worked from home were around 38% less likely on average to have received a bonus compared with those who never worked from home. These findings provide some evidence to support the old adage of “out of sight, out of mind”, and emphasise the necessity of recognising the work undertaken by all employees and not focusing on those who are more often in the physical presence of managers. 

Health and Wellbeing

Importantly, the report also identified trends around working time. For example it found that during 2020 people who completed any work from home did 6.0 hours of unpaid overtime, compared with 3.6 hours for those that never work from home, and that homeworkers were more likely to work into the evenings compared with those who worked away from home. In addition, it found that the sickness absence rate for workers doing any work from home was 0.9% on average in 2020, compared with 2.2% for those who never worked from home in their main job.

One of the many advantages of remote working can be a greater flexibility over when work can be undertaken, with the disappearance of the commute freeing up time in the day for other non-work related activity. However, where there is no clear delineation between working and non-working time there can be a risk of individuals working longer hours and having less uninterrupted downtime. Managers will need to find ways to encourage staff working remotely to create those breaks and avoid potential burn out. Also, although it is understandable that employees may feel more able to “solider on” and work while unwell if based at home than they would be if they had to travel to a place of work and potentially pass on bugs to colleagues, managers will need to work with their staff to ensure that they are not lapsing into this new form of presenteeism and are taking the time off when unwell. 

Summary

As shown by the differing approaches taken by comparable businesses to the question of returning to work one-size will not fit all. Instead, working with their staff businesses will need to identify an approach which supports their unique culture, assists in meeting its strategic objectives, while also reacting to the needs of the employees. Where businesses are looking to adopt a greater amount of remote working managers will need to be live to these and other challenges associated with managing remote employees to avoid the creation of a two-tier workforce and to protect the health and safety of it staff. 

Returning staff to the workplace will create issues for employers and employees alike, particularly around wellbeing. We are offering businesses the chance to run information and awareness training for their employees and their managers on recognising the signs of anxiety and mental health issues caused by the lockdowns and the return to work, as well as give tips and techniques for building confidence and resilience to support ourselves and others. Sessions can be run live or as pre-recorded updates.

For information about our Coming out of Lockdown – Building Confidence and Resilience employee focused session and our Coming out of Lockdown – Mental Health Awareness course for managers, or support in returning your people to site please contact us HERE.

Consistent with our policy when giving comment and advice on a non-specific basis, we cannot assume legal responsibility for the accuracy of any particular statement. In the case of specific problems we recommend that professional advice be sought.

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