In 2020, Covid-19 forced a dramatic shift in working styles. Suddenly, the physical workspace was no longer a safe environment — 91% of companies who were previously office-based had to switch to remote working. This, together with mass furloughing, self-isolation, job instability and new homeschooling responsibilities for parents, represented a major set of challenges for everyone.
In 2021, as we emerge from Covid-related working restrictions, companies big and small have radically changed the way they look at work.
80% of companies changed their requirements for presence in the physical office and remote working impacted different aspects of work and life in different way. The data and analysis below sheds some retrospective light on what those effects were; how team members feel when considering the future of their working styles and by companies as they move to establish a new, more productive and structured work environment for the future.
*a note on the data*
The data referenced in this article was collected anonymously in June 2021. The data reflects responses from 534 individual team members in UK small businesses (companies sized 10-250 people) and 89 decision makers from UK small businesses (i.e. CEOs, COOs, Founders, HR Administrators).
How do teams and companies feel remote working impacted them?
For over a year, 91% of teams were working remotely from home. The familiar office environment with its reliable set of routines, people and physical setting was abruptly removed from everyday life when the government instilled a ‘work-from-home-if-you-can’ mandate to prevent the spread of COVID-19, virtually overnight.
This jarring change in routine had wide ranging implications for team members. Physical distance from colleagues, the loss of a commute and the quick switch to a fully virtual working experience was a bumpy transition for many, and the impact is only now being weighed up with a mind to measure out the future of work.
We polled team members to find out how they felt remote working over the past year impacted their productivity, ability to manage their work-life balance, and their overall wellbeing.
Team members and business leaders alike agreed that remote work overall had a positive impact on productivity. The removal of distractions typically present in an office environment may have helped with deep work immersion.
Without a commute to mark a separation between personal hours and working hours, 63% of teams reported they worked longer hours into the evenings and on weekends than they had before the pandemic. However, despite working longer hours, 64% reported a positive impact and enjoyed greater flexibility while working remotely.
Without the constraints of a physical office, individuals were able to take breaks as and when needed and were able to refresh themselves in whatever ways worked for them. Increased flexibility during the day to do exercise, speaking to friends and family, going for a walk, etc. was encouraged by many companies during what was acknowledged by all as a very trying time for mental wellbeing. This increased attention to individual wellness likely improved team members’ ability to manage their work-life balance in a way that prevented burnout and over exhaustion.
Company decision makers agreed overall that remote working negatively impacted their teams’ ability to collaborate, though they did largely agree that productivity didn’t suffer (only 20% saw a negative impact on productivity from remote working).
What are teams and companies most concerned about with regards to future office policies?
After a year of working in a totally new way when it comes to physical presence in a workplace, team members and decision makers alike are reevaluating what it takes to boost productivity whilst enabling teams to better manage their mental wellness and work-life balance. As the world of work has changed, so too have expectations of how it should be run.
Decision makers seem largely aligned with team members when it comes to their main concerns with rewriting and adapting their HR policies to the future of work once pandemic restrictions are fully lifted.
Overall, teams seem split in terms of how they feel about returning to physical office spaces. Around half feel good and the other half bad, with only 12% sitting on the fence feeling neutral.
Decision makers seem largely confident that they will be bringing their teams back to physical office spaces in a safe way, with more than half of those reporting that they’re ‘extremely confident’.
What do post-COVID office policies look like?
With the lifting of social distancing measures in the UK, businesses are forging ahead with writing and adapting the policies that will set up how their teams operate when physical workplaces are once again an option.
At the time of surveying (June 2021), nearly half of all team members had not yet been told what their future working policies would look like or how they would be adapted given the learnings from a year of remote working.
40% of team members reportedly were not asked their opinions or sentiments for new office policies being considered or tailored for post-COVID working. 60% of decision makers did report however that they had asked team members directly what they felt would benefit them most in terms of future working/office policies.
Only 30% of companies had HR professionals working on their HR policies post-COVID, but 76% of leadership teams and 71% of founders weighed in.
Compressed hours aren’t widely offered with 60% of businesses don’t offer it and aren’t considering it.
Flexible hour policies are far more common: 70% of companies do offer them. 40% of companies have modified them since COVID and 10% have newly introduced them since COVID.
Across the board, team members and decision makers alike mostly agree that, after a year of forced remote working from home due to COVID, the policies around the office and working flexibility need to change. The 9-5, 5 days a week in-office seems to be a thing of the past in UK SMEs, with under 5% of companies returning to that format.
Teams and decision makers also seem aligned on the top priority of adapting policies to improve working-hour and location flexibility. Team members however are more concerned with the social and cultural aspects of work such as opportunities to socialise and bond — whereas decision makers are placing a higher value on improving their teams’ abilities to collaborate.
Team members are less confident in returning to physical office spaces than decision makers are. This may have been caused by the fact that 40% of them weren't asked their opinions about working policies for the future. A lack of involvement and transparency (50% don’t yet know what their future policies will look like) is likely to have an ongoing impact on the confidence of team members with regards to the future of work post-pandemic.
Confidence overall runs high amongst decision makers, who report being confident in safely and effectively bringing their teams back to offices, whatever the new policy, and teams feeling overall good about moving away from being fully remote and WFH.