Half UK employers to reduce office space and ‘stagger’ return to work

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Nearly half of employers (49%) are planning to stagger return to work based on employees’ own health risks related to COVID-19, whilst 46% will be staggering employees return depending on how critical their role is to the business.

The next most popular strategy is the creation of smaller workgroups (40%), followed by changing work hours (34%), a voluntary return scheme (33%), and splitting shifts (28%).

Over a quarter (28%) of businesses have stated that they will base their return-to-work strategy on local infection rates.

A third of companies have admitted to not yet considering what their return to work strategy may be.

The findings come from a recent survey from recruiter Robert Walters, with the global findings published in a whitepaper: Returning to the New World of Work.

What strategies are UK employers considering (or have implemented) to bring employees back to work  
Staggering return to work based on employees’ own health risks related to COVID-19 (e.g. respiratory or chronic conditions)   49%  
Staggering employees return depending on how critical their role is to the business   46%  
Creating smaller workgroups to limit mixing of employees/groups in the workplace   40%  
Changing working hours to avoid busy commuting periods   34%  
Offering employees the opportunity to volunteer to come back to the office   33%  
Splitting employees into shifts based on specific criteria (e.g. by name A-M and P-Z work different days)   28%  
Returning to work strategies will be based on local infection rates and risk (e.g. different strategies by location)   28%  
Not sure, we have not yet considered a return to work strategy   29%  

Lucy Bisset, Director at Robert Walters comments:

“What the research highlights is that despite the success of home working, employers are keen to start encouraging their staff back into the workplace and are happy to take necessary steps and put procedures in place to help enable this.

“A return to office brings about many perks, including social inclusion, better workplace collaboration, a separation of homelife, and a reinforcement of company values.

“What employers need to do is merge the perks of office-life with what people have been enjoying about working from home; for example – flexi-hours, a relaxed atmosphere, and avoidance of busy commute times.”

Legacy of Remote Working

87% of employees would like more opportunities to work from home post-return, with 21% stating that they would like to work from home permanently.

Whilst 83% of firms have stated that the experience of COVID-19 will encourage business heads to have employees to work from home more often, they also cite concerns over employee productivity (64%), senior leadership preferring traditional ways of working (57%), and the nature of the business e.g. face-to-face sales (36%), as the key barriers to achieving this.

Cost Saving at the Core

Implementing headcount freezes (50%), and utilising government unemployment schemes (43%) were some of the most popular instant measures companies took in response to the virus.

What measures did UK organisation take in response to the virus  
Implemented headcount freezes   50%  
Utilised government unemployment schemes   43%  
Terminated temporary or fixed-term employee contracts   22%  
Introduced voluntary salary reductions   18%  
Voluntary annual leave   15%  
We required additional staff in some areas   14%  
Introduced voluntary reduced working hours (e.g. nine-day fortnight)   12%  
Made redundancies   10%  
Voluntary sabbaticals   4%  
We have not made any staffing changes in response to the virus   36%  

Now as workplaces are able to re-open it seems that cost saving remains at the core of business strategy – with a reduction in office space (44%), and a reduction in travel budgets by switching to virtual meetings (46%) being the key tactics considered by companies.

Lucy Bisset adds: “It is too early to tell whether cost saving tactics will result in a reduction in salaries or bonuses, but any freeze of the sort will likely be compensated by the increase in softer benefits such as flexi-hours, wellbeing perks, and remote working.”

When it comes to recruitment, firms have already switched up their processes to be more cost and time efficient with 57% looking to continue with virtual interviews, 46% with online assessments, and 56% with remote on-boarding.

Adaption Necessary

Three quarters of employers admit that their senior team have not been equipped to manage teams remotely, and will need new training to be able to adapt to new ways of working including being more empathetic to work-life balance (74%), focussing on outcomes rather than work hours (65%), improving on virtual communication (57%), a better understanding of mental health and wellbeing (52%), and creating a more collaborative environment (36%).

How do you think your organisation’s leaders will need to evolve their skills to better adapt to and drive new ways of working  
More empathetic to work-life balance and what it means for different employees   74%  
Focus on outcomes rather than time spent   65%  
Clearer virtual communication (videos, blogs etc)   57%  
Better understanding of technology and its importance to remote collaborative working   55%  
Better understanding of mental health and wellbeing   52%  
Create time for more collaboration rather than adopting a top-down approach   36%  

It seems it is not just business heads who are anticipating changes to the future workplace, with employees expecting more flexibility to work from home (89%), investment in better technology (52%), a revised focus on wellbeing (32%), changes to the office layout (30%), more autonomy (29%), changes to work hours (18%), faster decision making (16%), and changes to performance measures (12%).

How do you think your organisation’s leaders will need to evolve their skills to better adapt to and drive new ways of working  
More flexibility to work from home   89%  
Investment in technology that enhances working from home   52%  
More focus on staff well-being   32%  
Changes to the office layout (including less permanent desks)   30%  
More autonomy and trust given by the management team   29%  
Changes to working hours   18%  
More agility and speed in the decision process   16%  
Changes in performance measurement   12%  

Lucy Bisset concludes: “It can be daunting for companies who have been going through a difficult period to consider spending money on their physical workspace, technical infrastructure or general operations.

“However, those who have been through previous periods of economic turbulence will know that investment at the early stages is crucial to remaining competitive and retaining good staff. We’d advise all employers to undergo a period of consultation with their staff to ascertain what they believe the future of their workplace and industry is going to be.”


Chris Price
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