The great ‘return to work’ debate


By Matthew Langin

With the lifting of lockdown restrictions, the conversation about the return to the office suddenly takes on greater relevance. Boris Johnson said employers in England will “be able to start planning a safe return to the workplace”, as part of the 19th July changes.

Taking a slightly different tack, Lord Sugar last month sent out a particularly polarising tweet on this very subject. He said:

Boris says it’s no longer necessary to work from home. So city people get back to the offices let’s kick start the local economy for shops, cafes who suffered badly. Some people may have become complacent liking this new style of working. Well those folk will never work for me.’ [sic]

Whilst the sentiment here is pretty strong, it raises an interesting debate about the return to the office. Whether this is back to normal, or more likely, embarking on a new hybrid way of working, there are real challenges for employers to create an environment where their people feel safe enough to return.

That’s the debate, how are people reacting?

The i reports a forecasted increase in employees stating safety concerns as a reason for not returning to the office, and businesses risking litigation by enforcing a return to work, without ‘good reason’.

There has already been pushback from staff at some well-known organisations. Apple CEO Tim Cook recently sent out communications to say that all Apple staff were to return to the office by early September. This led some staff to pen an open-letter to upper management, stating their frustration at this decision, and some staff even quit their jobs in protest.

The issue that employers have, is that there are several factors that are ultimately out of their control in this debate. The commute, being one such factor. There is understandable concern, among those taking public transport into the office, about sharing personal space on rush hour transportation. Anyone who has travelled on the Jubilee Line at 8am on a Monday morning, can probably make a compelling case for never wanting to experience that again.

A PwC study with US workers, from May 2020, highlights the potential barriers to a return to the office. 70% of those polled said that something would prevent them from returning to the work. Of that number, 51% said that getting sick is the biggest concern, and 24% would feel uncomfortable taking public transport. Here, in the UK, the CIPD has recommended that employers offer flexibility for their people, in the times they start and finish work, in order to minimise the risk they face on busy public transport services.

Time for cultural change?

There are physical things that employers can do in order to create a safer workplace for their people, and we’ll come onto that shortly. But there are also some less tangible factors that employers can consider, that can ease the anxiety felt around returning to work.

One of the main things that employers can do, is create transparency around the return to work. A global study by Equiem, which was designed to provide insight for landlords based on occupier sentiment, found that 60% of occupiers won’t return to office until ‘it feels safe.” The critical factor for them, is that they need to feel informed in order to make what is fast becoming quite a big decision for employees.

A shift to a more compassionate leadership style is something that can help to create this sense of transparency, and ultimately help to put employees at ease when considering their return to work. Using the conversation around the commute as an example; this isn’t something that has traditionally been part of that ‘employment relationship’ but is increasingly a factor now for employees. This is where compassion is potentially key, in demonstrating understanding for the situation, and helping to come to a compromise (eg changing working hours). Emma Swan, Head of Commercial Employment Law at Forbes Solicitors told ICAEW, “By engaging employees, companies can also better understand their concerns and aim to more quickly and effectively address any issues. This should help promote better morale and employee wellbeing and reduce the risk of stress, anxiety, frustration and anger compromising return to work plans and productivity.”

Stephen Pierce, Deputy MD and HR Director for Hitachi, identifies three clear ‘stages’ for a return to the office, from Consultation Stage, to Clarity, and then to Establishment. These ideas cover everything from engagement with employees, to adapting company culture in order to deal with the long-term effects and changes associated with the pandemic.

Embracing physical changes to your workplace

Onto the more physical factors for the office space now. There are government guidelines on what employers need to do, as part of their risk assessment. This includes continued social distancing, one-way systems and restricting face-to-face working. Patrick Stepanion, Legal Manager at Peninsula Canada, believes that employers may continue to embrace pandemic-style health measures to prevent any office-outbreaks, as health officials say we may have to learn to live with the virus. He says of Peninsula’s own approach “the big thing for us is coming down to putting in place these sorts of policies and procedures and these requirements ahead of time… so that all your employees have a fair warning, have information, have guidance,”.

There are some good, real-world examples of some of the ways in which employers are reacting to this debate. Some companies, such as Nokia and PwC, are embracing technology in an attempt to create a safe environment for their people. Nokia has an automated temperature detection solution to spot Covid-19 infections in buildings, and PwC has an automated contact tracing tool that notifies employees who have been in contact with another worker who tested positive for the virus.

As we discussed previously, there is the danger of creating division in the workplace. The ins versus the outs, and the vaccinated versus the unvaccinated. The Lord Sugar’s of the world should be mindful of the potential fallout in taking a hard stance on staff returning to the office. Whatever happens, it’s clear that this is a critical time from an employer branding perspective and getting this right could have real implications for the happiness and ultimately, the loyalty of your people.