It’s been almost a year since my first COVID-19 (then known as Coronavirus by almost everyone) related post for Employer News.

That first pandemic-post was rather difficult to write without causing any extra distress to those who were bereaved, or indeed appearing to dismiss the obvious severity of the crisis that the nation was just starting to experience.  So I opted to look beyond the lockdown, with a view as to how the crisis might potentially change the world of work in the UK.

In particular I said this;

“large swathes of the UK working population are now actively being encouraged to work from home by their line-managers or employers.  And having been given the green-light to work in this way, it’s likely that many will prove beyond all reasonable doubt that they can indeed work just as effectively at home as they do in the office”

Of course at the time of writing I – like everyone else – expected the lockdown to last for no more than 12 weeks.  Yet 11 months – and at least 3 national lockdowns – later, and vast numbers of the nation’s workforce are continuing to validate the above statement by working very effectively from their kitchen/coffee/dressing tables.

And the passage of time is important here.  Three months might be considered a relatively welcome hiatus from a lifetime’s work routine, whereas a year starts to take on the look and feel of permanence for all sides.

Indeed, what started off as a necessary short-term adaptation to see employers and their employees through a few weeks of unexpected lockdown, has now become the norm for vast numbers of previously office-based employees.

No planning

It’s also worth highlighting that this massive change happened without the benefit of any planning or preparation time to support the working from home initiative.  For the vast majority of the new home workers the change happened (literally) overnight – they travelled home on Monday the 23rd March 2020, only to be told by the Prime Minister in a televised announcement that evening that they couldn’t return to their place of work on the Tuesday morning.

The fact that so many employees have succeeded in delivering on their work targets is a genuine tribute to how adaptable people can be when the need arises.

Of course the on-off nature of the lockdown and tier measures over the last year has presented employers with opportunities to better equip those that were struggling to work at home too.  So at least some people that lacked the tools to effectively work at home in April 2020 may now be turning in a full day’s work in February 2021.

Losers & Winners

Now, before I go further, it is of course important to point out that economically the pandemic has already taken its toll on British business.  Many employers are already gone for good, many more are really struggling, and hundreds of thousands of workers are now newly unemployed, with millions more currently facing a very uncertain future when furlough and the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme finally ends later this year.

Yet – as always in business – there is a positive flipside to the significant downsides listed above.

For those organisations and their employees who have been able to continue to trade and work effectively throughout the downturn will be better placed to grow rapidly in whatever the post-pandemic business landscape finally looks like.  And the reality is that many will then look far more favourably at the options of full or partial home working, because it seems clear that it carries multiple benefits for many parties.

Benefits for many

So what are the benefits of greater home working in the future?

Let’s start with the most obvious beneficiaries – the employees themselves.  Many have already found that they are now financially better-off as a result of reduced commuting costs, and probably also from avoiding all the associated costs of office life such as take-away coffees, shop-bought sandwiches, and the need to purchase additional clothing specifically suitable for office wear.  Yet these financial gains will often be of secondary importance to the much improved work/life balance gained by avoiding the daily commute and all its associated issues.

Then there are the benefits to the employer.  At first these seemed less obvious, with many organisations convinced that business transactions and deals were entirely reliant on physical meetings.  And whilst that will always remain at least partially true, the reality is that online meetings have proved a very effective replacement.  So employers can now see that the need for business travel may reduce significantly post-pandemic, and indeed the costs of office space might be scaled back too.  Other positives include less spurious absence, higher engagement, and improved recruitment and retention appeal.

But there are also less obvious winners to consider.

Less office work and associated travel means fewer carbon emissions, which can only be good for the planet given the challenges of global warming.  And – based on nothing more than my local observations – it certainly appears that nature and wildlife has benefited from their reduced exposure to humans over the last year too.

Finally – but not least – more working from home might also help “level-up” the nation.  The issue here is that certain UK regions have been left behind purely because its inhabitants are not within commuting reach of a major employment hub, so earnings are accordingly lower.  This no longer needs to be the case, with full-time working supported by technology meaning that an employee might be able to effectively deliver his/her job whether in London or the Shetland Isles (Wi-Fi permitting of course).  So the government’s levelling-up agenda could be an unexpected beneficiary of the 12 months of disruption also.

Life finds a way

The benefits of home working are now far more obvious to so many more employers, and the perceived downsides perhaps less of an issue than was the case in (say) February 2020.

It follows that once the pandemic is finally behind us, many businesses will review – and indeed change – some of their employment red-lines of the past, and that many employees will probably welcome this new flexibility too.

Of course such changes bring further challenges to the world of commerce, particularly where business plans are built on the pre-pandemic assumptions of regular work-related travel and daily commutes.  Yet business – like life – always finds a way, and many industries will react positively to the new landscape once the dust has settled on the pandemic.

My final point however is this.  Regardless of whether your employees are site based, office based, or working from home, the employer has the same duty of care and the same need to support workers.  So the continued use of technology to stay in contact, communicate, and manage employees will need to be improved and adapted.

Likewise employers would be well advised to ensure that their suite of Employee Benefits tools are available – and relevant – to workers whether they are based in city centre with colleagues, or solo-working in a remote countryside location.  And the more support you can provide to remote employees, the more effective they will be in delivering on their workload.

The reality is that the last year may well represent a significant shift in UK working practices, and the savvy employer will already be considering how best to support workers in this new environment, whilst also ensuring that workforce engagement and productivity is strengthened too.

Steve Herbert is Head of Benefits Strategy at Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing