Vaccinations fail to lift expectations on returning to work

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PREMIUM

The odds on returning to the workplace sooner rather than later grew substantially longer between December and January, according to a new survey which also shows that UK employees have a bigger appetite than their European counterparts to work from home more often in the future.

The latest in a monthly series of research on WFH trends from investment bank Morgan Stanley shows that despite the rollout of vaccination programmes, employees in the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain have all upped estimates of when they will be able to go back to their normal work location. On average, these estimates increased by about one and a half months from those in December.

Across all workers in the UK, December’s estimate of 4.7 months rose to 6.2 months in January. The number who don’t expect to return until next year rose from 4 per cent to 10%, while the proportion of those who expect to be back by the end of next month fell from 21% to 15%.

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The shift was even more pronounced among UK office workers, with December’s estimate of five months shooting up to 7.2 months in January. Those who do not expect to return until 2022 rose from 3% to 10% and those anticipating a return by the end of next month fell from 23% to 14%.

Shivani Maitra, human capital growth leader at global accountancy group Deloitte, said the extended amount of time that staff have been away from the communal workplace means that employers will need to give workers time to adjust when the transition comes, much as they did when the abrupt shift to home working came in March of last year.

“We had a bit of a preview of what that return will be like for a short time last summer [in England]when you could go back in small groups for limited times,” Ms Maitra said. “That gave employers an idea of what the challenges will be, which they can use when making their plans this time around.

“That is something most employers are working on today, because it will have to be done in a very considered sort of way.”

According to the figures from Morgan Stanley, 61% of all UK staff have been working from home at least part-time during the pandemic, rising to 80% of office workers.

Of the five countries examined in detail, employees in the UK have the greatest desire to continue working remotely for at least part of the time for the foreseeable future. The UK figure of 68% compared to 66% for Germany, 62% in France, 60% in Italy and 58% in Spain.

This chimes with similar findings from Deloitte, which promoted the firm to declare UK employees “Europe’s working-from-home pioneers”.

Donna Murphy of training specialist What’s Next, which works with firms in Scotland and throughout the UK, said the hybrid form of working that looks set to take hold once lockdown restrictions are lifted will present employers with both opportunities and challenges.

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In terms of disadvantages, employees have told her that communication with remote workers can be “really hit or miss”. There are also issues with maintaining morale and ensuring staff wellbeing, all of which require a “more thoughtful” style of management.

She added that clarity around expectations will be key to making a success of a permanent WFH situation.

“Companies and managers will have to be careful about picking up on performance much more quickly than before,” said Ms Murphy, whose emphasis has shifted to resilience training during the pandemic. “A lot of teams I have worked with who were having monthly meetings have switched to weekly meetings, and are not showing any signs of going back.”

Ms Maitra said the Covid crisis has forced firms to re-evaluate how they measure productivity, with the traditional metric of presenteeism now substantially diminished. She believes the UK will adapt to hybrid working, but to do so will require a “more holistic” view on productivity, greater autonomy for staff, and an increased focus on teamwork and wellbeing.

“Those are some of the positives that if we take forward into the future could be a silver lining to this crisis,” she said.

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