A new survey of over 1,000 UK workers, carried out by HR software provider CIPHR, has revealed some key insights on employee attitudes to returning to their 'usual' workplace and how employers have (or in some cases have not) helped prepare their staff for the transition back.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, when everything changed, that 'usual workplace' for 74% of people was on-site at a business premises. Just 8% of survey respondents were fully remote.
During the pandemic, that shifted to around two-thirds of workers (61% of respondents) being required to work at home. For higher-income earners that number rose to three-quarters of workers, with 74% of those with an annual salary of over £45,000 required to work at home.
Fast-forward to July 2021, 77% of UK workers have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine (53% of respondents say they are fully vaccinated), and, although the pandemic is still far from over, thousands of businesses are now running at 'normal', pre-pandemic staffing capacities.
It’s not quite business as usual yet however, as 67% of employees intend to keep wearing a face mask in their workplace. Fully vaccinated people are those most likely to continue wearing masks in all indoor public settings, including their workplace (49%, compared to a 39% average of all workers).
Only 10% of those surveyed no longer intend to wear a mask under any circumstances. A similar 10% have also chosen not to get the Covid jab.
Britons go back to work
Despite talk of a gradual return to work, a significant 84% of workers say their usual place of work reopened for business months ago (just over 41% opened last year), well before England’s much-touted 'Freedom Day' on 19 July, which marked the end of over a year of lockdown restrictions – including 'work from home' advice and the legal requirement to wear a face covering when in an enclosed public space.
Many of these businesses (50%) are also back to their pre-pandemic staffing levels, with everyone who was working on-site expected to be back in the workplace. For businesses that opened in 2020, that figure rises to 68%.
For the 16% of workers whose usual place of work has not yet reopened, just 40% are expecting to be back by September. A further 20% by the end of the year. For the rest: 11% are anticipating a return sometime in 2022, 17% simply don’t know, and 12% have had their workplace permanently closed.
What workers want
Not everyone – albeit for differing reasons – is keen to stay working at home for the foreseeable future. Nearly half (47%) of people working in senior positions have been asked by their employer to continue working from home even though they do not wish to do so. This also applies to 41% of younger workers in the 18-24 age group. By comparison, the average across all workers is only 30%.
On the flip side, 53% of survey respondents have been asked to do the reverse by their employer – and return to their usual place of work even though they didn’t wish to do so. Looking at some specific industries, for people working in retail or education this figure rises to 57%, and for hotel and food service workers it’s 63%. By contrast, it’s just 26% for people working in government and public administration.
While in the 18-24 age group, around two-thirds (64%) say they’ve been asked to return against their wishes.
People able to work remotely during the pandemic were much more likely to have been consulted by their employer for their views about returning to the workplace. That was true for 70% of them, compared to a 61% average across all workers. A similar 60% of all workers were also asked about the number of days they’d ideally like to work from the workplace vs working remotely. Of those, 23% say their employer has accommodated their preferences and only 10% say their employer hasn’t or can’t.
Eager to return
How did people really feel about getting back to work – whether it was in 2020 or just last week? Many survey respondents said they were happy and had been looking forward to it (22% and 24% respectively), 22% were OK, and 12% had no feelings either way.
One in five workers did express some reservations though, with 16% describing themselves as somewhat anxious/concerned, and 4% as dreading it. More women than men felt this way (18% and 5% compared to 15% and 3%).
Employees that were happiest about getting back (in some capacity at least) were more likely to work for employers that had implemented some practical safeguarding changes to help support their staff’s physical and mental health, such as improved workplace ventilation (37%), training and development related to Covid-19 (30%), wellbeing support (27%), and requiring evidence of a clear Covid-19 test (24%).
However, for those workers feeling anxiety or dread, their employers were much less likely to have improved ventilation, provided Covid-19 related training or wellbeing support, or asked for evidence of a clear Covid-19 test (26%, 26%, 21% and 18% respectively).
The top three practices that employers have put in place to manage the return to the workplace (for all workers) include the use of hand sanitisers throughout the building (59%), requiring face masks in communal areas (49%), and enhanced cleaning (48%). According to respondents, only around one in ten employers (12%) are asking for evidence of vaccinations.
Commenting on the study, Claire Williams, director of people and services at CIPHR, says: "We urge all employers to consult their staff about changes you’re making that affect them. Keep checking in with them and ask them how they feel – particularly about the return to 'normal working'.
"As many as 72% of people have expressed a preference for working remotely in some capacity, so employers need to be aware that they risk losing the skills and experience of some great people if they’re inflexible in their approach to remote working going forward, and be considerate of employees’ rights around submitting formal flexible working requests.
"Even if remote or hybrid working isn’t a practical option, employees’ loyalty can be easily lost by a failure to communicate, especially following a period where employers have had to call on a huge amount of goodwill from their workforce during incredibly challenging times. Above all, it’s important that people feel listened to, and that employers act on their feedback, wherever possible.
"Workers are understandably cautious about the risks to their health during a pandemic and there are many steps that employers can take to reassure their employees and safeguard their wellbeing. It’s vital for organisations to gain feedback from their employees about measures they would like to see implemented for their specific situation, as well as use HR solutions like CIPHR HR to keep accurate records about their people."
CIPHR has created a list of free resources for people looking for information and advice on supporting health and wellbeing at work.
The results from CIPHR’s Return to Work Survey (conducted on 22 and 23 July 2021) are available to view here.
CIPHR is a specialist provider of SaaS HR, learning, payroll and recruitment software through its HCM platform, CIPHR Connect. More than 600 organisations use CIPHR’s solutions globally across the public, private and non-profit sectors, with customers including Blackpool Pleasure Beach, British Museum, Claire's Accessories UK, Crisis UK, Healix Management, Information Commissioner's Office, Met Office, Pro:Direct Sport, The Royal Society of Medicine, The University of Buckingham, Volkswagen Group UK and Willerby.
CIPHR is a privately held company, headquartered in Marlow, Buckinghamshire. Over 200 employees work across the group, which includes CIPHR, Digits Industries and Payroll Business Solutions (PBS).