The effects of returning to the office for employers, employees, and their work/life balance

Posted on 7 Sep 2022

Now that restrictions have been lifted across England, many employers are asking their staff to return to the office. But it’s not as easy as reverting back to the traditional 9-5. Employers will need to be careful to adapt to shifting working patterns that have developed over the past 18 months, as well as accommodating to employees’ changing needs and the summer holidays that will bring disruption for many working parents.

How have working patterns changed since lockdown?

Research conducted by the Institute of Employment Studies (IES) found that the transition to home offices and making up for time that would have been lost commuting meant that many employees actually overworked during lockdown. Whilst this might seem like a positive for employers, a more engaged and hard-working workforce producing more work for them, it’s likely to lead to stress and burnout, causing more problems than positives. But this is evidence of only one change in working patterns that have emerged because of the pandemic, and HR departments and their staff are likely to have many more problems than may have been anticipated to accommodate to their workforces changing needs.

What problems are the workforce facing now they are returning to the office?

Home schooling was a difficult obstacle that many parents had to overcome during lockdown, which was often juggled with childcare and their jobs. However, there are indications that the summer holidays are going to make things more difficult for the workforce, with working mums in particular suffering the most because of the pandemic.

HR Magazine reports that 63% of working mums with children are unable to access sufficient childcare for the summer holidays. Many have less access to their support networks because of the ever-present risk of Covid and have already used up a significant amount of their annual leave to help with home schooling. As a result, HR magazine reports that 60% of working mums, across the public and private sectors, will find managing childcare more difficult than it was in 2020, despite restrictions being lifted. Workforces will need to accommodate to their requirements for the health and wellbeing of all involved.

However, for others, working from home has been a positive experience, with less time spent travelling meaning they have more time to relax, or the removed pressures of the office meaning they feel less stressed. As a result, employers will have to be careful to accommodate to their employees’ individual needs.

What hurdles will employers have to overcome when their staff return to the office?

The easing of restrictions has arguably come at a difficult time for employers, as the summer holidays will bring them significant problems. As Personnel Today discuss, employees who choose to go on holiday this year may, depending on circumstances, face a long period of quarantine when they return, meaning employers will have to accommodate to their working from home during this period.

Personnel Today also suggest that many employees have saved up large volumes of unused annual leave after being at home for the past year, so employers may face a flood of requests for time off, or even a flood of annual leave cancellations if holiday plans are disrupted. These are on top of the difficulties of returning to the office in the first place.

As we discussed in our previous blog, IT recruits are currently in high demand, and are under lots of pressure to provide adequate systems for the new hybrid way of working. Employers will have to be careful that their IT staff aren’t suffering from stress and burnout, otherwise they will face and increased amount of sick leave requests, which should be avoided for the operation of the company and, more importantly, the health of the employee.

Managing the work/life balance and maintaining the good mental health of the workforce have been issues for staff and their bosses for years and been heightened by the blended workspaces that the pandemic has necessitated. But what can employers do to look out for their staff?

What can employers do?

Dr Zofia Bajorek from the IES states that “effective planning and management” will need to be implemented to “enhance work-life balance”, to both “improve employee health and wellbeing and organizational outcomes in the process”. To phrase it alternatively, mental health and wellbeing will need to take equal importance to more traditional measures, such as productivity and efficiency, as the former directly influences the latter.

But what will this look like? Dr Bajorek states that establishing a flexible working system will be essential, especially for working parents, as well as ensuring the adequate mental health provisions are in place. As Dr Bajorek identifies, it may require a complete overhaul of current systems, which will no doubt be something for HR departments to consider over the coming months. As we discussed in a previous blog, it does look like the hybrid method of working will be here to stay.

Are you in HR and currently implementing new ideas for how you monitor employee wellbeing? We’d love to hear from you. Feel free to get in contact and let us know.