What Freedom Day means for the future of home working

With the government this week lifting all remaining covid restrictions in England, including the instruction to work from home where possible, the debate as to whether businesses should be requesting staff to return to the office has renewed. That is closely interwoven with questions regarding working policies on job ads. And the debate is heated, with social media blazing with a raft of opinion on the matter as businesses publish their policies going forwards. So, should you mandate how often staff come into the office or is a truly flexible policy the way of the future? How does this affect talent attraction? Is flexible working a perk or is it now expected by candidates? We look into all this and more as we navigate the great home working debate.

Firstly, it’s important to note that even Boris Johnson has said that although there has been a removal of the government instruction to work from home where you can, the expectation was not that the whole country returns to their desks from July 19th but rather there be a gradual return to the office over the summer. However, a growing number of employees don’t want to go back to the office now – or ever. Some want to work from home full time and many more would prefer a hybrid option where they could spend part of their working week at home or in another remote location and the remainder in the office. A YouGov poll found that the majority of respondents (57%) wanted to work from home for at least some of the time and 72% believed their employers would allow it post-pandemic. 

The reasons for wanting a more flexible working routine are manifold but a better work/life balance is probably the biggest. A FinderUK study found that the average daily commuting time in the UK is now 59 minutes, meaning that cutting out the journey to the office could save workers a significant amount of time over the working week – time that could be spent with family and friends, playing sport, and other activities. From a wellbeing perspective, the gains from remote or hybrid working are huge. The financial savings from ditching the commute can also be huge, with the same study finding that commuters spend an average of £44.78 per week (rising to £57.78 for London commuters). 

Businesses, too, can benefit, with happier, more productive employees. A CIPD report found that more than two thirds of employers believe that home working has either increased productivity or that it remained unaffected by not being in the office. Flexible working can also help encourage more diverse candidates to apply for jobs, especially women. A recent study by The Centre for Global Development found that women were burdened with around three times as much unpaid childcare as men during the pandemic, leading to large numbers having to leave the workforce. Offering remote or hybrid working could make a huge difference to whether a mother feels like she can return to work and do so without risk of burnout.  

Over the past six months, a number of big businesses have spoken publicly of their workplace plans as we move to recovery mode. PwC became the first Big Four firm to announce its post-lockdown plans, setting out a highly flexible arrangement including a hybrid working set-up and allowing staff to decide their own working hours. Nationwide Building Society announced a ‘work anywhere’ policy, Santander is encouraging staff to work from home more often after closing a number of its offices, BP has told staff they can work from home two days a week, and Twitter announced a permanently flexible approach to home/office work mere months into the pandemic.

WaveTrackR data has shown that the percentage of jobs with remote working terms in their ads, including ‘remote’, ‘working from home’, ‘flexible workplace’ and ‘work from anywhere’, has increased from 2020 to July 2021, showing that, overall, companies are listening to the market. It differs regionally, however. At a growth of 5.7%, remote London jobs have experienced the biggest increase year on year, closely followed by the East Midlands with a 5% growth, and then the North West with a growth of 4.4% since 2020. On the flip side, the South East saw a 6.8% decline in remote working jobs from 2020 to 2021. 

Numerous surveys have found that the majority of candidates and employees want greater flexibility around their working week and most business owners will continue remote working in some form. Of course, there are some that have and will make the decision to insist that staff return to the office, Goldman Sachs, Barclays, and Google being three prominent examples. In general, however, Chancellor Rishi Sunak seemed to  be fighting the market when in March he urged companies to get their employees back into the office, arguing in a Telegraph article that “workers could quit if forced to stay at home.” What is perhaps more likely is that workers will leave and candidates will avoid organisations that don’t offer a choice. What employees and candidates really want is to be able to choose where and when they work, in whatever model suits them and their lives. 

For the first time in 16 months we appear to be entering a candidate’s market once more, making it even more imperative that businesses listen to what candidates are looking for in a job. WaveTrackR data has shown that jobs are rapidly increasing but applications have declined, something that recruiters across the UK can attest too. Following months of trying to manage an influx of applications, recruiters are now trying to grapple with the opposite problem: a distinct downturn in applications in almost every industry. In fact, the average number of applications per job has been decreasing for 5 consecutive months now, leaving recruiters to wonder where all the candidates have gone. In order to be competitive in a tighter market, offering a choice of working set-up where possible will no doubt increase your candidate attraction. 

Crucially, Nationwide surveyed their employees before making any decisions regarding working policies. It was the results showing that only 6% of staff wanted to return to the office full time that prompted them to make such sweeping changes. They also recognised that there will be staff that do want to come into the office some of the time, saying,“anyone who needs a desk in the office can have one – for whatever reason.” Spotify, too, is giving their employees a choice, allowing them to work from home, the office or a combination of the two, with “the exact mix of home and office work mode a decision each employee and their manager make together”.

An Ipsos Mori report which sought reviews from a host of major companies found that 43% of respondents needed some face-to-face time with colleagues, highlighting the fact that being fully remote wouldn’t work for many. Not everyone has an ideal set-up conducive to  home working, some want the social aspect that office life brings, and many younger workers benefit from in-person mentorship and training early in their careers. A poll by Totem, an employee engagement and culture app, found that half of 18-24 year olds want to return to the office full time. Clearly, dictating that entire teams must now work remotely would be seen as negatively as forcing everyone back into the office full time. 

With a more hybrid approach being adopted by many organisations, it makes sense that the purpose of offices will change. A report in the New York Times looked into the future of the office and found that we may be looking at office space that is designed for collaboration – more tech to enable remote workers to feel connected and for teams to work together efficiently wherever they are, fewer personal work stations and a rise in gathering spaces in their place. This would certainly facilitate the creative, social and collaborative hubs that companies like Nationwide describe when discussing how their offices will be utilised going forwards. “Our offices will become hubs where teams can meet for creativity, social connection and collaboration.” 

As we navigate our way into a new world of work post-pandemic, there is likely to be a lot of change as businesses and employees figure out what works for them. What remains crucial from a business and talent attraction point of view is that an element of choice remains where possible. As far back as 2019 the WaveTrackR Annual Report 2020 found that terms related to flexible and remote working were amongst the top keywords searched for by candidates and the pandemic has vastly accelerating that trend. Candidates want a choice and they will vote with their legs if that choice isn’t given. It may have been Freedom Day on July 19th but perhaps we should be viewing that as the beginning of true freedom of choice in where and how people work.

Share this article: