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Boris Johnson is out of touch — employees want flexible working

The UK government wants employees back in offices — but what do workers want?

Allie Nawrat

flexible working
Credit: Selina P via Twenty20.

Unleash Your PeopleThe UK government’s stance doesn’t quite align with that of the working public — but what does this mean for HR leaders?

  • The UK government wants employees back in offices.
  • But according to an EY survey, the government’s stance is not aligned with the desires and wishes of the country’s workforce.
  • With that in mind, how can employers retain their staff in the post-pandemic world of work?

Over the past few months, the British government has made no secret of its aim to get UK workers back into offices.

Back in March, UK chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak made waves when he said employers must re-open their officers once the pandemic passes. Otherwise, he added, staff would “vote with their feet” and quit their job for a different employer.

Despite many studies to the contrary, these views have come back into the limelight this week as the UK continues along its path out of lockdown.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson has signaled that the work from home guidance for England will most likely be lifted on 21st June – the date when all COVID-19 restrictions are expected to come to an end.

In addition, the Financial Times reported that the UK secretary of state for business, enterprise, and industrial strategy Kwasi Kwarteng has sought to reassure businesses that current rules in the workplace – social distancing, face masks, or vaccine certification – will also be lifted in late June. As a result, office spaces may not need to be adapted and there may be no need for a phased return to the office.

Johnson noted during PM Questions on Wednesday that the pandemic had impacted “the dynamism of London and, indeed, any other of our great cities. They do depend on people being able to have the confidence to go to work.”

But is this returning to the old normal consistent with the views of the working public?

Flexibility equals job retention

The simple answer is ‘no.’ It is increasingly becoming clear that the opposite is true: workers are not keen to leave jobs without an office but instead may quit jobs where there are no flexible working options.

A survey of 16,000 employees in 16 countries across the world by Ernst & Young (EY) found that 54% would consider leaving their jobs in the post-COVID-19 world if they are not offered some form of flexibility in where and when they work.

This was even higher for the manager level, those working in the tech and finance sectors, and caregivers. In addition, millennials were twice as likely to quit their jobs because of the lack of flexible working arrangements than the baby boomer generation.

90% of those surveyed wanted workplace flexibility – 40% wanted flexibility in where they worked, whereas 54% were keen on choosing when they wanted to work, and 33% said they wanted to work a shorter week in the post-pandemic world.

On average, EY’s 2021 ‘Work Reimagined’ survey found that people wanted to work two to three days remotely every week.

EY global people advisory services deputy leader Liz Fealy said: “Employees’ willingness to change jobs in the current economic environment is a game-changer.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that flexibility can work for both employees and employers, and flexible working is the new currency for attracting and retaining top talent.

“Employers who want to keep the best people now and in the next normal will need to put flexible working front and center of their talent strategy.”

Interestingly, part of the reason for employees’ interest in flexible working is because of how positive they have found remote working. 48% of those surveyed said that their company culture improved during the pandemic and 67% believe they can be productive irrespective of their working location.

EY principal of people advisory services Roselyn Feinsod added: “Organizational culture has historically been built based on shared in-person experiences and it is fascinating to see that the new ways of working have improved such culture in the eyes of many employees.

“As we look toward the longer-term and organizations continue to transform their operations, employers will need to consistently re-assess conceptions of productivity and the impact on their cultures, ensuring their team’s approach is optimized for the in-person, hybrid and digital work experience.”

[Read more: GitLab’s top tips to help HR leaders pivot to remote working]

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