With people now swirling around town centres once more, making the most of the reopened shops, restaurants and theatres, the largely empty office blocks have come to resemble the last visible bastions of lockdown.
While the government is still officially advising office-based staff to work from home, with social-distancing measures expected to end on 21 June, talk of returning to offices is now beginning to intensify. Some have already made the leap, but for most, conversations with employers are now getting underway to explore how this next phase of our long-anticipated return to ‘normality’ might look and feel.
But that vision of ‘the new normal’ can differ drastically, leaving many working parents waiting in a state of limbo and having to be ready to adapt quickly to a wide range of potential new scenarios.
At one extreme, City firms such as corporate bank Goldman Sachs, are demanding a full return to offices, while at the polar opposite are the likes of Nationwide, which has implemented a ‘work anywhere’ policy for its staff.
In between are a host of different hybrid strategies. Oil giant BP’s UK team will be able to work two days a week from home, while accountancy firm PwC’s UK staff will split their time 50:50 between their homes and offices. Others have offered employees phased returns, one-week in and one-week out policies, or the ability to split time between central and satellite offices.
With employers’ strategies varying so markedly, it’s therefore hardly surprising that as these discussions progress, they are generating a true myriad of emotions for working parents.
While some relish the opportunity for a change of scene and more clearly defined boundaries between work and homelife, others remain anxious about returning to more-rigid working structures after more than a year of home working. In addition we have heard from families who have been struggling with their mental health and have been ‘languishing’ at home, going back into the office for some is an opportunity to reconnect and to have much needed time to focus on ‘self’ in a different way.
A sense of unease
Gauging the feelings of nearly 60 working parents within the Inloco community, what is clear is that many are not keen to rush back into working life as it was pre-pandemic. This includes giving up the unexpected personal benefits and greater flexibility of home working – such as increased time with children, family mealtimes, and flexible working hours to suit their lifestyle.
One mum sums it up perfectly when she says: “Part of me can’t wait, but part of me is dreading it. I’m not sure how I’ll manage it all. I also don’t want to go back to the madness of life before.”
“I’m worried about returning to a rigid hours and location routine,” says another. “It’s been much easier to manage work-life balance at home.”
More than half (55%) of those who responded to Inloco’s survey reported ‘dreading’, ‘feeling reluctant’ or having ‘mixed feelings’ about returning to offices this summer. By contrast, just 20% said they ‘can’t wait’ or ‘don’t mind’ making the transition, with those people looking forward to being reunited with colleagues, a change of scene and a clearer distinction between work and home life.
For just over half 55%, the potential impact on their mental health was of concern, while a quarter (24%) were nervous about the impact on family life, and just under a third (29%) were concerned about their work-life balance.
The mental health impact
Ross Pert, marketing director at workplace mental health platform Unmind, which supports brands including John Lewis, British Airways and Asos, believes we all need to accept that there will be a certain level of “anticipatory anxiety about going back into the real world”, with those who have been enjoying the perks of working from home potentially viewing the move as a “loss of freedom”.
“Everyone should acknowledge that this is a period of transition and it’s normal to feel anxious,” he says. “It’s naïve to think that we’re coming out of lockdown so it should be good for everyone. We are not always good at adapting to change. Coming out of lockdown is as big a change as going into lockdown for people. People need to acknowledge that it could have an impact on their lives and wellbeing.”
Amy Mckeown, a workplace and women’s mental health consultant, agrees saying: “It will be a mixed bag of emotion with everyone feeling and experiencing different things. This will play out over quite a period as people decompress and recover from the last year but then rebuild into a new normal.”
She urges employers to “allow individuals time and space to return to work at their own pace; flexibility to see loved ones and travel; and space to process the emotional rollercoaster of the last year.” She adds that they should “actively listen to what people have been through and what worked and didn’t work for them, letting them feel seen and heard and adapting processes and systems to a new normal, where the positives of the last year are incorporated.”
But the pandemic has pushed “most employers to step up” this kind of support and better-appreciate their responsibility to identify and manage the risks to staff psychological wellbeing, believes Claire McCartney, senior policy adviser for resourcing and inclusion at the trade body for HR professionals CIPD. However, she warns, “if there isn’t a proper two-way conversation, where understanding people’s concerns and preferences is seen as priority, this could have a detrimental impact on people’s wellbeing.”
It is this flexibility and employers’ ability to adapt to individual’s work-life needs that will be a crucial element of many working parents’ post-pandemic work checklist.
A new era for flexibility?
For the Inloco community, securing ongoing flexibility over working hours, where they work, and being able to arrange flexible childcare around this was top of the agenda for negotiations with employers. This was highlighted with calls for “proper flexible hours that are employee driven” and “empowering people to do their work how best suits them, knowing that this may well be outside the office and outside the 9-5.”
“Given the length of time everyone has been working from home, employers should now see there is room for flexible working for parents and that it can work,” explains one mum.
And these parents are definitely not alone in this view.
Flexible working champion Katy Fridman told Inloco earlier in the spring that she believes we are “in the midst of a flexible working revolution and we will never return to the way it was.” A survey of her 33,000-strong Flexible Working People Facebook community found 60% of companies had already committed in March to pursuing a hybrid approach to working environments – mixing office and remote working – once restrictions eased.
“The demand for flexible working across the board is at an all-time high and people won’t be pushed back into bums on seats 9-5pm,” she insisted.
Cal Lee, global head of Workthere, a Savills-owned business which matches firms with flexible working spaces, is seeing this play out with demand soaring from businesses investigating a “hub and roam” model, which enables staff to access a central office, but then offers flexibility over where else they work – whether that is from home, a nearby café or local flexible offices.
This view is supported by Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trends Index report, which suggests employers should “create a plan to empower people for extreme flexibility”. It warns: “Now more than ever, people are expecting their employers and leaders to empathise with their unique challenges.”
It predicts: “We are no longer bound to traditional notions of space and time when it comes to how, when, and where we work. It’s time to set aside our long-held assumptions that dictate that people need to work in the same place at the same time to be productive and have impact. It’s a big mental shift — one that will require leaders and organisations to fundamentally re-examine and rewire their operating model.”
Making flexible childcare work
But with this increased flexibility, comes the need for flexible childcare.
Flexible options like phased returns and policies offering one-week in the office and one-week at home have the obvious advantage of easing everyone back into office life and the commute, but on the flipside also demand more complex childcare solutions.
Add to this the fact many employers are yet to fully agree timeframes for the return of their staff, leaving working parents at risk of having to find solutions without much notice, against a backdrop of rising demand for childcare more generally and the timing of the big return to offices coinciding neatly with school summer holidays.
For those who responded to Inloco’s survey this was clearly a concern, with more than a third (36%) highlighting the ability to find flexible childcare options as a concern.
Hannah Eames, Co-Founder of Inloco explained “childcare needs are changing fast, families require increasingly flexible childcare solutions that can work around a flexible working schedule. We’ve seen a big increase in families using Inloco to find a childcarer for a few hours each week”, she added “Inloco communities are helping families build a circle of childcarers they trust and can turn to for flexible childcare, whenever they need it”.
The return to offices, when it comes, will bring with it both a sense of relief as it spells the removal of one of the last hangovers of lockdown, but it’s also clear that not everyone will see it as a fully positive next step. Many parents have come to enjoy the advantages of less time commuting and more time with the kids outside of working hours, and new working patterns tend to necessitate a rethink around childcare options.
But with this transition, the key will be ensuring that we don’t simply slip back into the way things were done before. We are now presented with a unique opportunity to learn from the advantages we have gained and find ways to build these into our lives where possible going forwards, making both work and homelife symbiotic and mutually supportive.
As Katy Fridman so eloquently puts it: “I would like to believe that this is a human crisis which has affected all people in different ways across the globe and that we will come out of this more understanding, sympathetic and open to supporting people and finding ways that work for companies and their employees.”
Written by Kay Spyby, Guest Writer