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The return of the office – how to set the right expectations for the “New Normal”

Business leaders across the UK are looking ahead to Q2 2021 as the start of what will be our New Normal – working in a post-pandemic world. One of the most important decisions thousands of companies are making over the coming weeks is the conundrum of returning to office work. In those heady days of 2019 remote working, or flexible work agreements were becoming more common, but hardly the working norm, and the variation in behaviours and expectations were tied to industry lines: tech companies for example were famed for being outliers in establishing unusual working norms.

 

“But the pandemic has changed everything. Rapid digitisation has ushered in a new era of remote work in answer to the challenge of how to deal with airborne disease. Working expectations have, as a result, changed. In some sectors remote work will remain, and become the norm, while other sectors remain firmly “analogue” in nature.”

 

But what is the realistic situation on the ground for major employers in the UK? Remote work may have given health and safety relief to almost every firm able to put it in place during lockdown, but are the attitudes of UK employers mirroring this long term?

 

What remote work gives UK industry

It’s worth highlighting the net positives of remote work – for all the sudden rapidity of shifting away from working norms in April and May last year, the UK workforce adapted diligently and quickly.

According to our recruitment parent body the REC, expansive remote work could positively affect UK productivity by up to £9 billion, and, up to 28% of polled companies are likely to explore hiring people from further afield than their community in future, due to the ease and awareness of remote working, further expanding the talent pool employers have access too.

Remote working offered thousands of workers a much less stressful commuter burden, including the huge costs saved by city workers and long distance commuters; work/life balance improved (despite restrictions on travel); there was and will continue to be an improvement in D&I hiring due to the ability to hire from further afield; there were improved environmental and sustainability efforts by proxy, and the lockdown curated a more productive workforce (in some industries).

This, of course, has been balanced against what remote work doesn’t offer: entire sectors of the UK economy left out of the remote work “benefits”; remote collaboration difficulties; hybrid work/home set ups actually negatively affecting productivity due to distractions and a worsening of mental health as workers become lonely and unstimulated.

We are a social animal, and people need community to feel a sense of belonging and purpose, not to mention the overwhelming positives having a social work space gives people in terms of team building, trust, relaxing, and bonding.

 

So what should UK employers have to do when considering their return to office policy?

The office will still be required, and the pandemic has by no means shuttered how people work and thrive. There are, however, major considerations employers must take to build the right environment and expectations for their workers.

Some sectors are looking at more “Hub and Spoke” office setups to reduce commuter costs and keep workers nearer their homes and families, whereas some are setting up hybrid work timetables, picking and choosing when best to bring people into an office for work around projects and planning. All of them will have to consider strict health and safety around future COVID outbreaks.

 

  • Health and Safety – from mental health and wellbeing, to understanding new home working dynamics, to further pandemics, business leaders have to be prepared, agile in response and above all Gone are the days of the aloof manager, you need to represent and embody how your company looks after it’s people. Lead by example and set the right expectation.
  • Communicate – this is especially important in your hiring practice. Many candidates will now expect there to be some form of remote work, or will ask for it. If you do not want to include remote work in your company you must be completely frank about why, explain the reasoning and communicate it immediately to recruiters, applicants and your network. (NB: it’s worth noting in industries such as construction, manufacturing, warehousing, logistics, retail and hospitality this is less of a consideration, but for any office based roles within these industries you must be prepared to answer any questions!)
  • Tech, Tech, Tech – remote work can, and will continue to take, investment. From providing keyboards, to screens, to bespoke tech, you’re going to have to prepare to disperse your assets to workers at home if required.

 

Remote work is here to stay, and it’s fair to say the ship has sailed for most. However, the office is a vital component of our working and cultural life, not to mention town and city economies. Be communicative and safe with how you inform your staff how you are reopening in 2021.

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