As Jacob Rees-Mogg this week urged government departments to accelerate the return to the office, a new international study suggests that double standards are afoot when it comes to hybrid working. Adam McCulloch looks at how executives are office-working less than junior staff and how civil servants are being ranked according to where they are working.
The survey of 10,000 knowledge workers in the US, France, Germany, Japan, Australia and the UK has shown that non-executive employees are nearly twice as likely as leaders to be working from the office five days a week.
US-based business transformation consultancy Future Forum found that “inflexible return-to-office policies are having a negative effect on employee experience and driving attrition”.
Among its key findings were that with 34% of knowledge workers globally back in the office full-time, regular employees were far more likely than executives to be working in the office five days a week.
Additionally, work-related stress and anxiety has hit its highest level since surveying began in summer 2020 – but not among those who are remaining at home, among whom are a proportionally high number of executives.
Knowledge workers with little to no ability to set their own work hours were nearly three times as likely to be looking for a new job in the coming year, compared with those with schedule flexibility, Future Forum found.
The report authors said that, although many executives continue to work flexibly, “the flexible work options that provided much-needed balance and relief for their employees have been clawed back” so it was “unsurprising” that the gap between executives and non-executives on key employee experience measures such as work-life balance and work-related stress has widened considerably since last quarter.
Future Forum’s data also suggested that employees’ patience with ambiguous or delayed guidance from executives around the future of work at their organisation was wearing thin.
Employees who said their bosses were not being “transparent about their future of work plans” were nearly four times as likely to say that they would “definitely” seek a new job in the next year.
The authors added it might surprise leaders to learn that employees who said their company did not have a policy on flexible work were even more likely to indicate that they would “definitely” try to change jobs than employees who said their company prohibited home-working.
Deborah Lovich, managing director and senior partner at Boston Consulting Group said there were serious dangers for companies pushing against flexibility. “Employees have clearly proven that they can get the job done while having flexibility in their work lives. If executives roll back this flexibility—or put off key decisions on the options that employees will have going forward—they’re setting themselves up for a wave of departures,” she said.
Civil servants and hybrid working
In the UK, a letter by Jacob Rees-Mogg, minister for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency, telling more civil servants to return to offices this week caused a major stir and the response from union leaders raises many of the issues put forward in the Future Forum study.
Rees-Mogg’s demands are tone deaf and arguably futile. Have the last two years taught us nothing about productivity? It’s been clear that working from home or in a hybrid manner has maintained it” – Marcin Durlak, IMD Solicitors
Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA representing senior civil servants, said: “It’s ludicrous that civil servants are being counted with clickers. Ministers should be concentrating on what’s being delivered, not numbers at desks.”
The general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), Mark Serwotka, said: “For over two years, often under the government’s own instruction, many of our members have demonstrated that they can do their job from home. The suggestion that they’ve been ‘sitting at home’ is deeply insulting … they should embrace the benefits of hybrid working and make good on their promise to build back better.”
It is understood Rees-Mogg sent ministers a league table of departments, based on the number of government workers going into the office during the week beginning 4 April. This revealed the Department for Education had just a quarter of its staff going in each day on average. The figures were similar at the Department for Work and Pensions (27%) and the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (31%). At the other end of the table, 73% of employees travelled into work at the Department for International Trade.
‘Tone deaf and futile’
Marcin Durlak, managing partner at IMD Solicitors, a London and Manchester-based international law firm, also took the view that Rees-Mogg was ignoring the benefits that hybrid working had brought. He said: “Rees-Mogg’s demands are tone deaf and arguably futile. Have the last two years taught us nothing about productivity? It’s been clear that working from home or in a hybrid manner has maintained it – with many employers finding that productivity has remained the same or higher.
“This move is at odds with other government moves to make flexible working a default right across UK business. We’ve learnt that presenteeism isn’t a conduit for productivity. Considering flexible working holds considerable benefits that the civil service would want to uphold, such as a more diverse workforce, and less absence, it sends a confusing message to UK business too.”
Echoing Future Forum’s findings, he added: “There are other means by which to encourage people back into the office – forcing them could lower morale, and risk reducing productivity.”
If executives roll back this flexibility—or put off key decisions on the options that employees will have going forward—they’re setting themselves up for a wave of departures” – Deborah Lovich, Boston Consulting Group
However, for Helen Crossland, partner at London-based law firm Seddons, there were dangers with the continuing high level of working from home. One was that health and wellbeing issues may not be noticed by employers. She said: “A pitfall of agile working is that employers can have less of a handle on health and wellbeing matters and a reduced opportunity to pick up on cues concerning employees. Employees might also feel more pressured to continue working from home when unwell in exchange for not being compelled to go into the office.
“Employers have a duty to act if they ‘know’ or ‘ought to know’ about an employee’s mental or physical health condition that triggers an obligation to consider adjustments to the individual’s working arrangements.
“Whatever a businesses’ stance on hybrid working, times have changed and policies should be reviewed accordingly. Regard should be given to updating sickness absence policies to cover reporting and notification requirements on non-office days, as well as introducing hybrid working and mental health and wellbeing policies.”
For Victoria Short, the CEO of recruitment firm Randstad UK, said that transport costs and options were a major factor in high rates of working from home in many areas. Citing figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on how people commute to work, she said: “The rise in fuel prices is a much bigger blow to workers in Northern Ireland and Wales than to those in London, say. Londoners have public transport options that aren’t available in other parts of the country. The car is often the only option here and that’s just got loads more expensive.”
ONS Labour Force Survey figures suggest that 84% of Northern Ireland’s commuters travelled to work by car, minibus or van, and 81% in Wales. In England (67%) and Scotland (70%) better public transport options made it easier for people to head in to offices.
However, she conceded: “On top of that, train passengers have just suffered one of the worst periods of cancellations ever due to staff shortages – so that’s not exactly a reliable option either.” Encouraging people to return to offices would mean a new transport strategy that reflected regional inequalities she said.
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