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Our view is that the pandemic is a seismic change to the way we work. 95% of those attending our webinar last week said that they saw the majority of staff splitting their time between home and the office. 

The change will be permanent for many; 49% of those polled said that they were considering reducing office space, with 72% looking to redesign the space to facilitate collaboration and flexibility.

While it's early to tell, the signs are that agile working will make the workforce more inclusive; 72% of those polled had received applicants for new jobs applying from further away from the office, making the pool of potential employees much larger and there was an increase in applicants who are parents/carers.  There are also opportunities for employers to attract disabled staff, and we'll look at that at a future webinar.

While we managed to respond to most of the questions in the webinar there are a few others that we didn't have time for and these are discussed below.

Health and wellbeing

We were asked what measures to take to protect employees' health and wellbeing. The pandemic has taken a substantial toll on many peoples' mental health, and agile working has meant that it's harder for employers to spot the warning signs.  To some employees, working from home, often alone, has been very difficult and they have felt isolated and lonely.  We’ve noticed an increase in enquiries about employee ill-health and an increase in disability discrimination claims.

Employers have a duty to provide a safe place of work, at home or in the office. The pandemic signals to us a shift to a more supportive employment relationship with employers helping their employees in many different ways. Many employers have been surprised by the increase of engagement during lockdown. Confidential counselling services can be provided for those who need them.  Managers should ensure that they catch up with their team members on a regular basis and ask them to raise any concerns. Some employers have appointed mental health first aiders, and trained managers to spot signs of mental ill health. Some employers use a private messaging service which allows employees to send a message to their managers if they are not feeling ok. Many find that scheduling regular exercise and social events help staff stay away from their work and remain engaged with work.  

How to manage conflicting needs

One of our attendees asked what happens if an employer wants an existing role to change to only one day a week in the office, but the employee wants to attend the office full-time.

While the need to be flexible is key, different working configurations ideally have to suit everybody - the employer, any customer or client needs and the employees.  However that might not be possible. Consultation is key with employees to work out how to structure these arrangements by agreement if possible. It is however important to set boundaries at the start, so that everyone knows where they stand and your managers are empowered to manage teams effectively. You will need as well to reflect some changes in writing, to minimise contractual and tax difficulties. 

Other things to take into account will include any specific needs on grounds of mental health, and also possibly the extent to which their home is a safe working environment.  In addition, domestic abuse has been on the rise since the pandemic started and those at risk of such abuse should be supported. We will be looking at how an employer can support victims of abuse at Trowers Tuesday in April 2021.

Checking in on working patterns

We were asked if we recommended doing regular mini surveys to check that people are fine with continued home working.  It's worth noting, as stated earlier, that the government's advice is still for employees to work from home if they can. This is set to continue until June so for the time being home working remains the norm for those who are able.  Sadly we are not yet out of the pandemic!

Different generational needs

Another question we were asked related to younger staff members and their need to spend more time in the office to build up knowledge and business experience.  How is this compatible with a hybrid working pattern? 

This is one of many challenges for employers, but it is possible to find practical solutions.  It's important to make sure that training and support systems are rolled out to younger staff members to help them grow in confidence in their roles.  Lots of training can be (and has been) carried out on-line.  In terms of practical business experience one way of tackling this is to have younger staff members shadow more senior members of staff.  They can be invited to join virtual meetings or simply keep in touch by keeping open facetime or similar channels open all day. Diary management is likely to be a big challenge on returning to the office and younger people's needs will need to be considered so that they work with more experienced colleagues in person as well as virtually. 

Implementing change

We were asked how employers can implement organisational change during a period when face-to-face contact isn't possible.  This is a problem currently facing many employers who are looking to modernise their businesses and change the way in which work has traditionally been carried out.

The key thing here is to stay connected, communicate and consult with staff.  It's important for staff to feel involved with big organisational decisions.  Many employers have already started consultation on the future and preferred working pattern is, i.e. if they want to work from home going forwards how many days would they ideally like to do this.  The feedback from this consultation can then be used to come to other decisions, such as how much office space is required.

The positives

Change can be frightening and many employees will find a move to hybrid working difficult to adapt to. If the move to agile working is inevitable it is worth dwelling on the positives. There is data that shows flexible working leads to greater productivity.  We have already explored the opportunity to increase the inclusivity of the recruitment pool. Finally there is considerable evidence already that employees want flexibility and agile working. Perhaps a happy workforce is what we should all aim for?