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UK employees ‘most reluctant’ to return to the office

2 March 2021: If employers thought Boris Johnson’s tentative roadmap for an easing of lockdown restrictions signalled a return to the office, they may have to think again, if the results of a new survey are anything to go by.

One in four employees in the UK said they would resign from their current job if they were forced to return to the office, according to research conducted by HR software company Personio. The survey of 1,000 employees also found that more than 37% feel that their company is avoiding implementing new hybrid ways of working like flexible working schedules and is persisting with compulsory attendance.

UK employees were found to be the most reluctant to return to the office, with only one in three returning to the office at least part-time, compared to 59% of those across Europe. The survey findings prompt questions about a possible disconnect between employees’ aspirations to split their time between working from home and office and widespread employer ambitions for staff to wend their way back to the office.

Although many people have embraced the homeworking phenomenon, it is by no means without its challenges. More than a third of UK respondents said they felt less productive when they are not physically in the same space as their colleagues. One in three agreed that not being physically in the same space as their co-workers has lowered their morale.

The study prompts questions about the best way for employers to manage to transition away from enforced homeworking in a way that best meets their business objectives safely and effectively and satisfies the growing desire among staff to shun the daily commute. 

Kirsty Lilley, a mental Health Specialist at chartered accountants’ wellbeing charity CABA, says the pandemic had caused high levels of fatigue amongst employees who may have been grappling with several demands on their time, including homeschooling, periods of isolation and concerns about health. 

“The key to ensuring employee engagement as we move out of lockdown will be effective, compassionate conversations around employee concerns,” Lilley says. While it may not always be possible or indeed helpful to agree to every employee demand for flexible working, an environment where people feel their concerns are heard and responded to appropriately is important to reaching a mutually helpful compromise, Lilley adds. 

Meanwhile, employers should be mindful of the readjustment required to return to busy places and the stress of commuting, particularly those staff with social anxieties or who have been shielding for the last year. “Many people may only be able to cope with increased levels of social activity after lockdown by using hygiene hyper-vigilance as their psychological safety measure. It would not be fair to shame or embarrass other people who may continue this practice as a coping mechanism,” says Craig Jackson, Professor of Occupational Health Psychology at Birmingham City University.

Charlotte Farrell, associate solicitor in the employment team at Paris Smith, explains: “After 26 weeks continuous service, an employee has a right to make a flexible working request, but the business isn’t obliged to accept it.” Employers can reject such requests if it meets one of the grounds set out in the legislation, including the burden of additional costs, a detrimental effect on the ability to meet customer demand, an inability to reorganise work among existing staff and a detrimental impact on quality or performance. “However, employers should consider any requests reasonably and it is generally advisable to seek to agree a compromise with staff where they can. If a request is unreasonably refused it could lead to a potential claim against the employer - or at the very least to a disgruntled employee for the future.” 

Fiona Hamor, an employment partner at law firm Pannone Corporate, warns that there was no one-size-fits-all solution to the conundrum of staff who refuse to attend the workplace. “Many employees will continue to have valid concerns about their safety, for example if they or household members are clinically extremely vulnerable or have not been vaccinated.” 

Some employers are considering a requirement that their staff are vaccinated before they come into the office, which raises issues of potential discrimination where staff can’t or don’t want to take up the offer of vaccination for health or religious reasons, Hamor says. “A blanket policy is likely to cause more problems than it solves so it is better to adopt a case-by-case approach – considering the individual circumstances and discussing options before any decision is taken.” 

Karen Pay is head of people at Optionis Group, the professional services group that includes accountancy firms SJD Accountancy and Nixon Williams. She believes the last year has clearly demonstrated the value of flexible working to both employees and businesses. “We haven’t witnessed any negative impact on performance and the ability to optimise work-life balance and reduce commuting time and cost has had a really positive impact.” 

“We have many colleagues who can’t wait to get back to the office, as well as others who, for a variety of reasons, have remained in an office-based working environment throughout the pandemic,” Pay adds. “We also have many colleagues who are looking forward to being able to retain some flexibility in the new world of work. Each personal situation will continue to be considered when agreeing the approach with individuals.”