This article is the first installment of our three-part series of key employment issues for 2022. The second article is on managing reluctant returners and the third is on company sick pay and unvaccinated employees.
Now that the focus has returned to hybrid working, employers should consider highlighting to their workforce the potential benefits of spending more time in the office. In any attempt to encourage a return to the office, showcasing office perks will be preferable to the opposite approach: emphasising the negatives of working from home.
The government recently committed an employee relations faux pas in this regard, when certain individuals reportedly criticised home-working civil servants as having become “complacent and inefficient”. This is unlikely to win any employee motivation awards.
However, it is a good reminder of the importance of checking in on employee morale, particularly when we all know that the continuing spread of Omicron will have left morale at rock bottom in many workplaces.
As such, placing office enhancements and employee wellbeing initiatives high on the agenda for the coming months is likely to be a good plan. In this article we suggest some steps that employers may wish to consider.
A starting point may be to examine your current office space and ensure it offers the best possible employee experience. One possible “knee-jerk reaction” last year, in the face of developing hybrid working policies, was for businesses to cut down their office space and reduce rent, with a view to curbing one of their largest overhead costs.
Instead, employers may wish to retain additional space and use it to make the office a more pleasant environment for staff. More breakout areas, coffee hubs and collaboration space can turn the office into a social hub as well as a workplace, bringing benefits to both employer and employees.
Some employers are starting to look at how office space can be most effectively used. This doesn’t just mean efficiency in desk space, but also perhaps somewhere to eat lunch away from the computer screen, a quiet spot to read, or a room with some greenery and soft lighting.
All of these features can help the office to feel more like home. Employees have spent most of the last two years learning how they work best in their home environments, such that a more permanent return to the office could be quite a shock to the system.
Giving thought to introducing a comfortable and welcoming feeling to the office will no doubt help with that transition. Impressive roof terraces and outdoor space for socialising can also go a long way to induce employees back to the office, particularly given that outdoor socialising carries a much lower risk of Covid transmission.
Employers can only do so much with the space they have, particularly if the office is within a larger tenanted building. Landlords are equally concerned with bringing their tenants (and therefore their tenant’s employees) back to their offices, to reduce voids within the building.
Employers can capitalise on landlords’ efforts to encourage a shift back to long-term office working. Easy wins for landlords will include building-wide freebies such as free breakfasts, coffees and various seasonal events.
Travel subsidies, free bike safety equipment, more flexible office hours and a subsidised canteen are all incentives that can help to encourage travel back to the office. They will also support staff retention in the face of high turnover in many professions.
If your business remains focused on in-person meetings, consider simple wins like providing breakfast pastries, lunch, or an interesting guest speaker. Advertising this early will ensure that employees have time to make the necessary arrangements to attend.
Many employers also now offer a variety of wellbeing activities, with a view to boosting employee health and helping raise staff morale. External providers could attend the office to provide yoga or pilates classes in lunch breaks, for example.
Similarly, desk-based webinars on a variety of topics to support emotional and psychological wellbeing could be offered. Employers are well aware that now more than ever employees could benefit from additional mental and physical health support.
Commuter convenience is another item high on the expectations list for employees. Few will relish the prospect of returning to regular commutes, but many office buildings now provide easy cycle access, bike stores and high-end shower and changing facilities, which may help ease the transition.
A safe & welcoming environment
The provision of a Covid-secure office environment is essential and will go a long way to encouraging employees back to their desks and alleviating Covid-related anxiety. As has been the case throughout the pandemic, it remains important for employers to continue with health and safety risk assessments and alleviate any identified risks.
In the long-term, employees will inevitably expect more from the office – whether that is improved air and ventilation quality, stricter cleaning protocols, or enhanced building amenities and social spaces.
In turn, employers will expect landlords to facilitate this, or else take their business elsewhere. This makes the choice of building for a business tenant more important than ever. Choice of real estate is certainly becoming more focussed, and we continue to see a noticeable drive towards the office being a welcoming end-of-trip destination, rather than a dreary inevitability.
Many employees will have missed the ad hoc chats and collaborations which are facilitated by attendance at the office. Enforced time working from home, while great for some people, has had a negative mental health impact on others.
Therefore, having a comfortable space in the office, away from distractions, to brainstorm and collaborate, is likely to encourage renewed employee creativity and positive energy. The ability to perform our roles from home is sometimes no substitute for the gains that can be made by those quick catch-ups and physical meetings.
Suggesting regular in-person meetings and measuring the impact they have on creative problem solving versus a Teams or Zoom call might be one kick-starter to more regular office attendance.
Supervision & training
The benefits for junior employees of being in the office are not easily replicated in the home-working environment. In-person attendance can help them absorb information, ask questions and learn from watching and listening to more senior colleagues. In many industries, not least law and financial services, close supervision of staff and effective training is a regulatory requirement that cannot be diluted and a key component of career development.
While technology facilitates remote working, sustained levels of supervision can be more difficult to achieve away from the office. Encouraging office working for the benefit of learning, development and quality control remains important. Junior employees are also more likely to feel supported and valued if in-person development reviews, feedback meetings and training sessions can be incorporated into their work schedule.
Both internal and external networking provide important opportunities to make connections, learn, bring in new work, and build a personal brand. It is possible to do this online, but there is no real replacement for the personal connection gained from meeting physically. Chance conversations rarely occur at virtual events.
Employers might start with reinstating internal social events on an informal and relaxed basis. These will initially be less daunting for most employees than a formal occasion with peers, managers and/or clients. While hybrid working arrangements are generally here to stay, there is still likely to be a pent-up demand for regular time to connect with colleagues.
If you have any questions about these issues in relation to your own organisation, please contact a member of the team or speak with your usual Fox Williams contact.
Need more information about the above people and legal expertise? Talk to one of our lawyers: +44 (0)20 7628 2000
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