According to the Office for National Statistics, in April 2020 almost half of UK employees (46.6%) did some homeworking, with 86% of these workers having done so as a result of the pandemic.

Such a seismic shift in working patterns would have taken decades to develop naturally. As we now emerge from lockdown and attempt to develop some sort of ‘new normal’, employers are asking questions about how to bring their workforce back into the office.

We set up a series of ‘roundtable’ discussions with employers from a diverse range of sectors, to share ideas and generate conversation. It was clear that there are many common issues which affect businesses, small and large, across the board.

Below are just some of the important issues facing our clients, which may provide food for thought for other employers grappling with the same sorts of issues.

‘Hybrid’ working as the ‘new normal’

The majority of businesses are planning for a ‘hybrid’ or ‘blended’ return to work, meaning employees who are able to will likely split their working time between the office and home – although the exact detail of how this will operate can vary greatly.

Many large companies, such as Nationwide, BP, PwC and KPMG, have opted for hybrid models, with a 2/3 day split seeming to be the preferred option.

But how do employers implement a hybrid model?

The main issue lies in achieving the right balance between giving employees enough flexibility while retaining some form of control and oversight and also betting the often intangible benefits that flow from team working.

Many employees have reported an increase in wellbeing and productivity as a result of homeworking, but this won’t necessarily be the case in every department or business.

Performance management has largely been put on pause over the pandemic, but thought needs to be given as to how proper supervision can operate within a flexible working practice.

Employers should also consider how to enforce their flexible working policy – do they stipulate a number of days staff are required in the office? If so, will this operate on a trust basis or will it be regulated?

Will staff coming into the office be required to be present from 9-5, or can they tailor their hours to avoid the dreaded commute and overcrowded lift? If not enough flexibility is given, employers risk losing talent to competitors.

According to a recent study by IWFM, two-thirds of 18-24 year olds admitted that not being offered flexible working patterns would cause them to look for a new job.

Too much flexibility however, and employers might start to see their output levels drop.

Offices fit for the future

Much of the discussion we had focused on how to make the most of office space. Many businesses are planning to reduce their office floor-space, which is not only cost effective but better for the planet too.

More of a focus will be placed on the purpose of office space, with large areas dedicated to ‘collaboration spaces’ and meeting rooms, reducing the number of actual, individual desks.

Desk-booking apps and lockers are being used to assist with hot-desking, and moveable furniture can help make the office more adaptable.

Healing divides or widening the gap?

A concern raised by some of our attendees was the sense of a growing division between those who can work from home, and those who cannot.

There is a perception homeworking is a ‘benefit’ - a survey of 5000 employees in Britain revealed that the average employee considers working from home a perk worth 6% of wages. Indeed, many of us shudder at the thought of returning to the cramped commute on the train, the queue for the coffee machine or that neighbouring colleague’s growing mug collection.

This workforce division is exacerbated by the fact that homeworkers tend to be better paid and more highly-qualified, as confirmed by a recent Office for National Statistics study. This isn’t surprising, given the nature of non-professional roles, but it is having a wider impact on society.

The study showed that more affluent areas had much higher rates of homeworking when compared with less affluent areas. Additionally, it found that the sickness absence rate was more than double for non-homeworkers.

However, it's important to remember that homeworking isn’t without its disadvantages. The ONS study found that those who had done some work from home had higher rates of unpaid overtime and worked longer hours.

The study also looked at the effect of homeworking pre-2020, and found that employees who mainly worked from home were much less likely to be promoted or receive a bonus, perhaps because they are less visible to managers.

The professional development of those working from home cannot be forgotten about, particularly for new or junior members of staff.

This last point is particularly poignant when considering the gender pay gap. Before the pandemic, the percentage of part-time employment among working women was very high, which is thought to be due to the burden of care largely falling on them.

This burden was exacerbated at the start of the pandemic by the closure of schools, nurseries and childcare facilities. Mothers are more likely than fathers to reduce their working hours, switch to homeworking or attempt to juggle childcare whilst working, and this all contributes to the gender pay gap – a gap which shouldn’t be allowed to grow.

Food for thought

From our discussions, it was clear that all businesses, from all different kinds of sectors, are grappling with the same issues – and nobody really has the answers.

Encouragingly, it appears that most are really making an effort to talk to their employees and take into account their experiences when devising any policies or guidelines, which will help to avoid any backlashes such as Apple and Facebook experienced.

If you want to get in touch about how your organisation can benefit from a new approach to flexible working arrangements, our expert employment law team would be happy to discuss your plans with you.