What employees think about the return to work, according to new U.K. data
Safety concerns, balancing visibility with flexibility, and embracing work/life balance are themes for returning workers.
As pandemic conditions have eased, relief about resuming many normal activities and routines is tempered with uncertainty about safety and which precautions remain necessary. On top of that, many people have come out the other side of lockdowns and closures with fundamentally changed perspectives about their lives, their work, and their choices moving forward. The main implication for employers is that there is no going back–employees are leading the way to the workplace of the future.
Research from Momentive among employees at small and medium-sized businesses across the U.K. captured interesting and important insights about what that future–now, present–workplace needs to look like and some specific challenges confronting employers.
Hesitancy about returning full-time and how to alleviate it
One in three (31%) employees at small businesses and 42% at medium-sized companies admitted to feeling hesitant about returning to the office full-time. At this point, it’s clear that new variants of the virus will almost certainly continue emerging from time to time, making it crucial to establish new norms around safety that acknowledge employees’ concerns and support their peace of mind.
According to our research, the top three measures an employer can take to help their workforce feel more comfortable about returning to the office are:
- Mandated vaccination (39%)
- Larger office space to facilitate social distancing (36%)
- Requiring all employees to disclose their vaccination status (35%)
New flexibility brings new concerns
Thanks to the pandemic, what were emerging trends in workplace flexibility have become mainstream in record time. This brings incredible opportunities for companies to improve their employee experience, but it also requires some thoughtfulness. The tools and technology that facilitate remote work continue to advance rapidly but it can be a struggle ensuring that policies, processes, and the workplace culture keep up.
As remote and hybrid work models became more widespread, a new concern is proximity bias–the perception that employees in close physical proximity are better workers. More than one in five (22%) employees at medium-sized businesses and 16% of those at small companies are concerned that remote work would lead to missed opportunities or less consideration of their opinions. And that concern is not misplaced. A quarter of those surveyed admitted they seek opinions of co-workers situated in person more than their remote colleagues: 24% at small businesses and 27% at medium-sized companies.
Businesses that do shift toward remote work, especially if it’s only for some employees, will need to consider how they’ll ensure those employees don’t get overlooked or under-valued.
New perspectives and priorities: security and well-being
One of the biggest impacts the pandemic has had on the future of work is affording employees the opportunity to reflect on their work, their lives, and how they balance it all. Many have experienced a pronounced reset in priorities and how they make choices going forward. Employers need to understand these shifts to make sure recruiting, hiring and retention strategies are aligned with the workforce they want to attract and keep.
There was a time when pingpong tables and beer on tap were considered the best perks for top talent, and that time is past. In our survey, 72% of employees at small companies and 63% at medium-sized businesses indicated a bar in the office was not a benefit they want or have ever been offered.
What do they want? Programs and mechanisms that support their current and long-term health and well-being. A four-day work week sits at the top of the list for 39% at small businesses and 45% at medium-sized companies.
Employees at small companies also want enhanced pension contributions (39%), health insurance (34%), unlimited holiday (33%), and mental health support (32%). The top of the wish list at medium-sized companies included unlimited holiday (45%), enhanced pension contributions (38%), gym membership (35%), and health insurance (35%).
In responding to the pandemic, many companies moved forward in answering these needs. It will be important now to see it as the new normal rather than a temporary blip. For instance, our research indicates many British businesses increased mental health support, including access to counseling and wellness apps, during the pandemic. Among small companies, the percentage doubled from 10% to 21%; among medium-sized companies, from 16% to 34%.
Ask and they will tell you—listen and they will stay
Another development during the pandemic was increased attention to employee feedback. Around half of employers–46% of small businesses and 51% of medium-sized companies–said they’ve asked for regular feedback from their workforce during the pandemic. And employees confirm it’s true: 45% at small-businesses and 54% at medium-sized companies strongly agree or agree that employers are listening more nowadays to what employees have to say.
The trend hasn’t taken root broadly or deeply enough yet, though. “While many are eager to return to the office and see hybrid options, employers need to mind changing preferences,” says Graham Douglas, Managing Director of EMEA at Momentive. “This applies to safety protocols, benefits, mentorship opportunities, flexibility and more. Our research found that 69% of small businesses confirm they’ve never sent out employee surveys. This number is 55% at medium-sized businesses. If you’re not asking what employees need to be successful and productive, you will miss out on a unique chance to innovate for them and retain key talent.”