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Corporate Giants Send Out Mixed Messages Over Flexible Working


The debate over when and how staff should be brought back into the workplace has just become more heated after asset management company Shroders recently told its 5,000 staff worldwide they no longer have to be in the office for a certain number of days each week.

Before the pandemic the 216-year-old wealth manager, which is headquartered near the Barbican in the City of London, expected staff to be at their desks at least four days a week. But following its decision to embrace “a new approach to flexible working” they can work from anywhere as long as they fulfil the hours stated in their contracts.

This groundbreaking post-Covid-19 adjustment was first reported in The Daily Telegraph and later in The Sunday Times. Shroders’ CEO Peter Harrison said in a recent interview that Covid-19 had “changed society irrevocably”.

He continued: “The contract between society and business has changed forever. The office will become a convening place where you get teams together, but the work will be done in people’s homes.”

But days earlier Barclays’ CEO Jes Staley signalled that he wanted to see home-working employees returning to the office “over time”. At the beginning of August, he told Bloomberg TV: "It is important to get people back together in physical concentrations."

He said 60,000 Barclays staff were working "from their kitchen tables", but stressed that another 20,000 were in offices, branches and call centres. In April, Staley had forecast that big-city offices "may be a thing of the past".

On 2 August, Kevin Ellis, Chair of accountancy firm PwC, which employs more than 22,000 staff across the UK, said he hoped to have around half of the company’s workforce back in the office by September, according to The Sunday Times. Ellis said the age of presenteeism – the fear of leaving your desk – has been annihilated by the pandemic as employees work from home.

Other City-based firms also appear not to be sending the majority of their staff back into the office. Earlier this month, just 800 of Goldman Sachs' 6,000 London staff returned, while fewer than 2,000 of the 12,000 at J.P. Morgan are back behind their old desks.

These figures are borne out by statistics recently released by US bank Morgan Stanley’s research unit AlphaWise. Following a survey held in mid-July, it discovered that just 34% of British white-collar workers are back at their desks, dragging their heels behind their European counterparts. France has seen the greatest return with 83%, Italy 76%, Spain 73% and Germany 70%.

Of British workers overall, the number has improved with 52% having returned to their places of work, but that is still low compared with 85% of employees in France, 76% in Germany, 75% in Spain and 74% in Italy.

New research from Theta Financial Reporting, a consulting and accounting firm that promotes flexible working for highly qualified accountants, also shows British bosses and their finance teams are not returning to work, despite calls to do so from Prime Minister Boris Johnson and business leaders. Johnson told English businesses they could decide from 1 August when and how to recall staff. However, Theta’s research reveals that 26% say their company’s finance teams will not be returning to the office and will continue to work at home. The research also shows that 70% of City-based workers don’t feel comfortable commuting to work via public transport and believe it will be one of the most stressful parts of their day.

It also revealed that 25% of British employees haven’t been offered flexible working options and 33% of workers say returning to the office will impact their mental health – and this period is pivotal to the survival and growth of the UK economy.

This research demonstrates that, regardless of calls from business leaders, people are not happy to return to their pre-Covid working environments due to concerns over their mental and physical health. The pressure of adjusted contracts, a swift alteration in working spaces and practices, as well as changes to the work/life balance, would have taken months for people to get used to, so to flick the switch yet again is unacceptable to many UK employees.

If you are asked to go back to work shortly, there are some steps to take:


Discuss flexible working

Theta's research shows that 25% of British employers haven't explored any flexible working options. Of course, this isn’t possible in some industries, but if you work in a sector where there is an alternative, talk to your team members and your employer if returning concerns you. Now more than ever, work doesn't have to start at 9am and finish at 5pm, and operating outside these traditional hours will only become more commonplace. Many people, particularly working parents, will appreciate a discussion about flexibility. As an employee, ask your team leader about working options and suggest strategic returning days, such as those before important meetings or increase your time in the office ahead of important deadlines.


Reassess your commute

Consider cycling to the office. There was a cycling boom during lockdown and exercise before and after work can also help with mental and physical health. If you can walk or run to work, do so! If you developed walking, running and cycling routines during the daily period of exercise during lockdown, try to maintain the habit. With fewer people back at work, there will be more lockers and showers available and shorter waiting times. Just don’t forget your towel on your first day back.


Work around the rush hour

The rush hour is currently significantly quieter, but this could change over time. Talk to your team and employer about other options, such as starting and finishing work earlier or working until lunchtime and completing tasks at home. Staff who are focused on their assignments rather than being distracted by children or pick-up times can rapidly increase productivity and enjoy greater work satisfaction. Also, if your team works internationally, take time zones into account. If you are based in the UK and your team is on the West Coast of the US, there is little point your starting earlier and their starting later. Ask your team leaders about moving the teams’ working structures closer together rather than further apart.

From the commute to boosted productivity when working from home, this period has uncovered numerous benefits to flexible working. Bosses would do well to realise this and adapt now to pivot their business, remove unnecessary overheads and plan for a post-Covid future.

If you are a finance leader, there are also some steps you should look to take before bringing staff back into the office:


Ask your team

First, gather input from the team. Businesses should make an effort to gauge their employees’ attitudes on how they want to work in future, their concerns and desires. A collaborative approach will be far more beneficial to the company than forcing a decision made without consultation on to staff. Consider issues such as parental responsibilities, working around busy travel periods and the schedules of your international colleagues.


A new working model?

Second, think about combining some home working with some office-based activity. Mixing shift patterns carefully and in a co-ordinated fashion will enable staff to adhere to social distancing guidelines and help to make them feel safer. Office spaces may need redesigning so staff can collaborate safely, and office hours may need to change to avoid peak travel hours.
Safety

Third, make sure members of your team have read the return-to-work guidance issued by the board. Your company's safeguarding measures will have been drawn up in accordance with goverment guidelines (please see links below). From the availability of hand sanitiser to collecting and maintaining personal information according to GDPR requirements, the guidelines will have been designed to help people feel confident about returning to work.

For full guidance on UK workplace risk assessments and information on returning to work, please click on the following links:


Photo of Chris Biggs
Chris Biggs
Managing Director, Theta Financial Reporting