As pandemic restrictions ease, many workers have returned to the office, some more eagerly than others. Recent ONS surveys have indicated that many firms (over half in some industries) are planning to offer remote working on a permanent basis.
In a recent interview, Chancellor Rishi Sunak argued that it’s “really important” for workers, and particularly younger workers, to return to the office. The Chancellor cited concerns that remote workers may lose out on skills development and mentorship from more senior staff.
Many workers across the UK are facing the choice of whether to return to the office or not, how to balance their hours in-office or remotely, and how to mitigate the downsides of homeworking. Should you commit to hybrid or remote working? What are the long-term pros and cons if you do?
Flexible working arrangements can make childcare easier to manage, can help you focus, and achieve a better work-life balance. No commute means no travel costs, less stress and less wasted time.
Pre-pandemic studies found that remote workers were up to 40% more productive than office-based staff, and that they made fewer errors in their work. As businesses have seen over the course of the past year, remote workers can work faster, more accurately and are happier overall.
There are downsides for some remote workers. An ONS survey of homeworkers identified the following issues for some staff:
Government-published data supports these fears, with one study finding that homeworkers worked nearly twice as much unpaid overtime as in-office staff, but were 50% less likely to be promoted and only had a two-thirds chance of receiving a bonus. There is also data to suggest that remote workers are at greater risk of loneliness and of anxiety about being seen to be productive.
During the pandemic, some companies struggled to make the transition to remote working. Without tools like Asana, Slack or Trello in place to track employees’ workload and performance, there is a risk that “less visible” staff are undervalued. If your workplace still lacks a detailed homeworking policy, you could also be at greater risk of being undervalued relative to visible in-office staff.
Despite the benefits of remote working, you may feel that you are “missing out” on important aspects of office life. Although some of us are relieved at the thought of missing after-work drinks and watercooler gossip, for others the social aspect of work is hugely valuable.
In addition to letting off steam, drinks and banter give staff a chance to bond, build networks and discuss ideas and concerns in a casual setting. An astute manager will spot HR issues early, and address them sooner.
As mentioned above, studies have shown that some remote workers are also already worse off than in-office staff in stark financial terms, missing out on promotions and other opportunities for more pay and career development.
The short answer is, “Yes!” Crucially, employers don’t want a two-tier system to develop at their company. Businesses want to achieve success and growth, and retaining productive, happy staff is absolutely critical.
Some firms may not realise their remote staff are feeling overworked and under-rewarded until it is two late. Although it’s not your responsibility to fix your company’s working practices (unless you are in HR), there is still much you can do to avoid the downsides of remote work.
With the right tools, management and policies, all of the potential issues with remote work can be mitigated.
By law, all UK workers are entitled to the same rights and protections, regardless of where they work.
Chris Salmon, Director of Quittance, said “Under The Management of Health and Safety Regulations 1999, companies must explicitly consider the health and safety of homeworking employees. Along with the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and several other pieces of legislation, the Regulations set out the duties that an employer owes to its staff, including remote workers.”
“It is vital that remote workers are not treated as an afterthought, and are given the same management, HR and legal support as all other staff. A comprehensive homeworking policy is a key piece of the puzzle.”
The Working Time Regulations 1998 set out employees’ entitlement to regular breaks (at least one 20 min break for each 6 hours worked) and sets limits on hours worked (no more than 48 hours per week, with 11 hours rest between workdays).
Homeworking allows for greater flexibility than the standard 9-to-5 workday, but ONS data suggests that some remote workers are working longer hours for less overtime. If the company’s homeworking policy is inadequate (or ignored), remote staff can find it difficult to separate their work from home life.
The Management of Health and Safety Regulations 1999, the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations and several other pieces of legislation set out your employer’s responsibilities to all staff, including remote workers.
Employers must risk assess workers’ home office setup, and must take reasonable steps to safeguard workers from harm. The assessment should consider issues like:
Employers must also accommodate workers with on-going health concerns, and take additional steps to prevent further injury, such as providing support for existing stress or mental health issues.
If you plan to work from home for the long term, energy, data and phone costs can mount up. If your company does not offer any financial relief or expenses allowance to remote workers, but does offer perks like a subsidised canteen, travel costs or gym membership to in-office workers, you could raise this disparity with your manager.
If you want to build networks and develop your career, there are many off- and online meetups you can attend outside of your workplace. Your manager or other senior staff may also be willing to mentor you remotely on a semi-formal basis, or meet up for a monthly coffee outside work hours.
If you are concerned about missing out on office culture and professional development, hybrid working may offer a better balance between the pros and cons of homeworking.
Hybrid working means you will work remotely some days and will be present in the office for others. How hours are split can vary widely and may depend on your job role. The manager of a sales team may need to attend the office 4 days out of 5, whereas a software developer may only need to attend two days a month.
Whether a hybrid solution is right for you will also depend on what you expect to gain from remote working, and on your concerns. For example, you could help mitigate any impact on your long-term career by reaching out to potential mentors and arranging a pre-work or lunchtime coffee for the days you are in the office.
It’s worth noting that some homeworkers aren’t interested in career advancement. Studies have shown that older workers are less concerned about missing out on promotions; they see benefits like a better work-life balance as worth the trade-off. A worker with family and other commitments may not want to take on overtime and other responsibilities.
There’s no single solution to balancing remote and in-office work. What works for you and your employer may be quite different to the approaches taken by other firms and in other sectors.
Don’t be afraid to participate in the development of better hybrid and remote working practices, passing on ideas and issues to your manager or HR rep. Clear communication is the best tool to address most workplace issues, whether you are working in an office, exclusively from home, or on a hybrid basis. As firms adapt to the post-COVID “new normal”, now is the ideal time to participate and help your company develop fairer processes for all workers.
By Chris Salmon, The Operations Director of Quittance Legal Services