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Sunak is wrong — 50% of Brits are worried about returning to the office

The UK Government argues that the public want to return to the office and not being able to do so will impact their decision to stay in their current role. Are they correct?

Allie Nawrat

healthy workplace
Image by Austin Diestel via Unsplash.

Unleash Your Workforce The healthiness of the workplace itself is the main factor in staff interest in office-based working.

  • The UK Government says the public wants to return to the office and not being able to do so will impact their decision to stay in their current role.
  • But a survey by Infogrid found that 50% of UK employees are concerned about office-based working.

Late last week, the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak was interviewed by the Telegraph. He told the newspaper that once the pandemic eases employers needed to allow their workers to return to the office or staff would “vote with their feet” and consider quitting to work for a competitor.

Sunak shared this view that home working was not a substitute for the office environment: “You can’t beat the spontaneity, the team building, the culture that you create in a firm or an organization from people actually spending physical time together.” The chancellor was particularly concerned about the impact of long-term remote working on younger staff members.

Similar sentiments have been expressed by the CEOs of major banks, including Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan. They are pushing against the tide of embracing long-term, post-pandemic remote working and instead are seeking a return to the office as soon as possible.

However, Sunak did acknowledge that hybrid working — a mix between working from home and office-based work — may be a workable solution for some sectors.

On Saturday 27 March, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson entered the debate. When asked if there should be a special bank holiday after the pandemic subsides, Johnson said:

“The general view is people have had quite a few days off, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing for people to see their way round to making a passing stab at getting back into the office.”

Johnson’s remarks have been greeted with consternation from the Labour party, as well as members of the government’s own scientific advisory board SAGE.

This is because they are in contradiction with the government’s own official advice, which calls on UK workers to work from home where possible. There is no suggestion in the UK’s roadmap out of lockdown of when this advice to work from home may actually be reviewed.

What do UK workers actually want?

It seems that the views of the UK Government are out of touch with the views of the British public.

In fact, research by smart building company Infogrid suggests precisely the opposite. A survey of 2,000 UK employees commissioned by Infogrid and carried out by OnePoll found that 50% of employees are concerned about returning to the physical workplace.

Office-based workers were most concerned about returning to the workplace, compared to manufacturing, construction and healthcare workers.

Infogrid concludes in its report, which is titled ‘Creating a Healthy Workplace,’ that this is because construction, manufacturing, and healthcare workers have already returned to their workplace, and measures have already been introduced to keep employers safe.

Creating healthy workplaces

“This research shows that businesses have to accept that their employees have reservations about returning to the workplace,” said Infogrid CEO William Cowell de Gruchy.

“Organizations need to take action now to prepare the workplace. Not only to make their employees feel safe but to safeguard their ongoing welfare. Employees are now more conscious than ever of how their workplace impacts their wellbeing.”  

Infogrid’s survey found that 65% were more concerned about the healthiness of their workplace now than before the pandemic. In addition, 54% of employees said that the healthiness of their workplace impacted their mental wellbeing, while 56% said it impacted their physical health.

Of those who were not concerned about returning to work, 60% noted this was because their employers had made their workplace safe, whereas only 54% linked this to the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out. Thereby demonstrating the important role businesses can play in getting the UK economy back to normal.

So how can companies reassure their employees that they are safe in the workplace?

Infogrid’s report suggests that employees want regular cleaning of the office (73%), a limit on the number of people in office spaces (69%) and availability of hand sanitizer (67%).

In addition, 61% said they would feel safer if air quality was improved to reduce COVID-19 spread, but only 22% said their employer was working to enhance the air quality.

[Read more: Why Agile Workforce Management Is Key For The Future Of Work]

Employers can reassure their employees that they are carrying out measures to make the workplace healthy with data.

Infogrid’s survey found that 58% of staff would feel more comfortable returning to the office if their employer used data to improve the healthiness of the workplace. Employees want access to this data, particularly that linked to virus risk, cleaning information, and air quality.

A healthy workplace retains talent

Cowell de Gruchy concluded: “As humans, we spend 90% of our time indoors, and with their health on the line, employees will understandably be expecting more action from their employers to improve their workplace. A failure to meet their standards may see organizations lose talented workers.

“The challenge for businesses is how they can measure the effectiveness of the steps they are taking to make healthy working environments and reassure their employees. The answer lies in the use of data.” 

So instead of the UK Government’s view that not offering a return to the office is causing employees to decide to change jobs, Infogrid’s research suggests it is actually the quality of the workplace that impacts employers’ ability to retain talent.

The report notes that because employees are now more aware of the impact of their work on their health, they will make decisions about their employment based on the quality of their working environment.

According to the survey, 47% said the healthiness of their workplace impacted their decision to stay at a particular company, while 39% said it impacted their decision to look for a new job elsewhere.

This is particularly the case for the 18-34 age group; 44% said the healthiness of the working environment would influence their decision to change job, this compares to 30% for those aged 55 or over and 39% for those aged between 35 and 54.

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