Returning to the office: what does this mean for employers?

Business Insights

As more people return to the office, Steve Sweetlove, Pay and people partner at RSM UK asks: what should employers consider in the new world of hybrid working?

The pandemic has brought about a huge cultural shift in peoples’ attitudes to work. After many spent two years working from home, employers shouldn’t assume employees want to return to the office straight away, if at all.

There are several reasons why people may be reluctant:

  • Not feeling comfortable in social situations, especially those who are more vulnerable

  • Working from home may give a better work-life balance or make caring responsibilities easier

  • Skipping the commute saves time and money

  • New hires may have only known working from home and may therefore feel less comfortable working from a different environment.

Our research demonstrates many employers have already shifted their policies in response to the changing needs of employees. RSM’s latest ‘The Real Economy’ report identified that 43% of employers surveyed offer hybrid or flexible working to attract and retain staff, 50% allow more flexible ways of working and 35% offer hybrid working.

Employers have a duty of care to protect employees from coronavirus, which is still circulating in the community. This may be challenging, as people have different perspectives and ways of behaving, for example someone coming into the workplace with symptoms could adversely impact someone else who has health issues, or perhaps a vulnerable relative.

How can employers protect staff?

Employers should consider continuing with hybrid working where possible and amending policies as needed. RSM recommends:

  • Develop a clear internal policy on what employees should do if they have covid symptoms or test positive

  • Agree any changes to sick pay policy, for example will there be enhanced sick pay specific for covid?

  • Communicate the company’s approach to covid, seek feedback from employees and support them with any concerns raised

  • Carry out a risk assessment to establish whether any covid measures should be kept, such as social distancing, sanitation stations, or masks.

What are our clients telling us?

From speaking to clients, the current top priorities are wellbeing, staff retention and employee engagement. The big debate is how to encourage more people back into the office as take up remains low. Employers need to identify what’s preventing employees from returning to work and address their concerns. If organisations believe it is important for people to return to the office, they will need to offer a compelling reason why, and communicate this effectively.

Interestingly one of our clients has had less than 10% of staff return to the office. Their average employee age is 24, which demonstrates a commonly held assumption, that younger people would want to return to the workplace for social engagement and learning opportunities, may not be true.

The challenge for young people is how to learn the ropes if they are not in the office? Organisations should think carefully about performance management and learning and development for all employees in a changing environment. There may need to be some flexibility for training employees, combining remote and in-house training. Striking the right balance is important to try to keep everyone happy.

One thing employers also need to beware of is ‘proximity bias,’ where people who are in the office are treated more favourably than remote workers. The phrase ‘out of sight, out of mind’ can often ring true for remote workers, while the person with the bias may not be conscious of it.

Hybrid working is still in its infancy for many organisations, so this is the ideal time to consider what’s working and what’s not. Listening to employees and responding to concerns in an agile way now will help create a happy, productive, sustainable workforce.

The survey was the fifth in The Real Economy series of topical quarterly surveys focusing on the middle market as the powerhouse of the UK economy. It was also used as a means of uncovering the wider workforce challenges faced by middle market businesses. The Real Economy is the first authoritative source of economic data from this crucial area of the UK business market, sharing insight and perspective for the wider economy.