The benefits of hybrid working mean it is likely to become the most common employment model in the future but organisations need to ensure work arrangements are managed in a healthy and safe way, IOSH has warned.
A survey of senior employee benefits professionals at 121 UK companies by employment consultancy Willis Towers Watson found that around two in five employees could split their time between onsite and remote working in the future as the employment sector gradually recovers from the global COVID-19 pandemic.
In a separate national survey of 3,000 UK adults, financial services company LifeSearch found that 44% of its respondents would like to work on a hybrid basis compared to 51% who would rather be exclusively home or work-based.
IOSH, which has published guidance on managing staff who are remote working, notes that the hybrid model offers important benefits to employees but also raises some issues.
It argues that, while the model isn’t practicable for all roles, where hybrid work is promoted, employers need to manage the process effectively to protect employee health, safety and wellbeing.
Michael Edwards, OSH content developer at IOSH, says that it is critical that employers make it clear what they expect from employees when they are working remotely as part of their hybrid work arrangements.
‘One of the issues is people working longer hours at home and not having that face-to-face interaction and so they may not get the right communication from their employer to say, “You should only be working a certain number of hours. You shouldn’t be spending large amounts of time working at home, over and above what you would do if you were in the office”.’
Malcolm Staves, global vice president of health and safety at L’Oréal, concurs. He says it’s important to prepare staff while also making sure employers don’t invade employee privacy.
‘What we’ve done, and it is global, is create videos, presentations and booklets, which show employees how to set up their computer workstation at home correctly,’ he says.
‘We remind them of the importance of breaks, hydration and moving around and that working from home can be an invasion of personal life and that this needs to be taken into consideration. When in the office the commute gives a break between work and home which gives us time to switch off. At home this doesn’t naturally happen. Also many family members may be working at home at the same time which can be problematic.’
Michael reiterates the importance of considering ergonomic issues and making the relevant adaptations where required. This also applies to lighting if employees are working off documents for long periods. Another consideration is portable appliance testing.
‘If the employer doesn’t have the correct systems in place, employees could be working off potentially dangerous portable equipment while they are hybrid working,’ he says.
‘So, what sort of home working risk assessment processes have organisations got? Have they accounted for all the potential risks to that individual while they are working at home and in the office?’
Historically, many employers have been wary about allowing employees to work at home several times a week but as the Willis Towers Watson survey notes, COVID-19 has transformed the way businesses operate and remote working has become more acceptable.
Before the pandemic, 82% of employees mostly worked onsite with less than one in ten working remotely. However, this changed significantly with three-in-five employees working remotely when the survey was carried out in May and June this year and only one-in-four working mostly onsite.
The survey findings suggest that as the economy opens up and restrictions are lifted, 85% of employees plan to move back to the office by the end of 2021.
However, the expectation is that in two years’ time, most workers will have a hybrid work arrangement, with around two in five employees mixing onsite and remote working. The survey also found that about a quarter of the workforce will work remotely on a full-time basis.
Willis Towers Watson also predicts that in the future only about three in ten organisations will have their workforce mostly onsite. Two in five organisations will have most of their employees using a hybrid model or exclusively working remotely.
In the LifeSearch survey, the most popular option for those who favoured a hybrid setup was a 50/50 split between home and work (44%). Of the remainder who wanted a split, 29% said they would like to spend three-quarters of their time in the workplace and a quarter at home while 27% would prefer the opposite split: three-quarters of their time at home and a quarter in the workplace.
More than third (35%) responded that they would prefer to be in the workplace full-time, while just 15% said they would like to work from home full-time.
Malcolm says that, where practicable, the French cosmetics giant was already working towards a hybrid model across its global operations before the pandemic. What COVID-19 has done is accelerate this process.
‘Pre-COVID we were responding to the needs of employees who wanted a better home-life balance,’ he explains, ‘and the pandemic “forced” us to accelerate this.
‘This will require a more flexible way of working to create win-win conditions both at work and at home.’
While IOSH calls on employers to ensure hybrid work arrangements are managed in a safe and healthy way, it points out that this model also offers strong benefits and is preferable to the option of working at home fulltime.
‘There is less likelihood of isolation issues,’ warns Michael. ‘Also, it helps with things like childcare, so very much from a wellbeing perspective, it is very beneficial.’
Michael also argues that from a more physical health and safety point of view and demographics, hybrid working could reduce traffic on the roads, leading to fewer road-based fatalities.
‘This links back in to IOSH’s road safety policy, which talks about managers considering alternatives to driving such as video conferencing,’ he adds.
However, there are also benefits to having staff onsite. While L’Oréal’s philosophy worldwide on the future of work is largely hybrid, Staves concludes that one of the reasons why it hasn’t put in 100% working at home (where it is practicable) is because personal contact is part of business’ DNA whatever company you work for.
‘It’s having the chat in the corridor around lunch,’ he says. ‘A lot of business relationships and decisions are made outside of the meetings.’
Adam Pavey, a director at law firm Pannone Corporate, warns, however, that some employers may not support more flexible work patterns post-pandemic and may pressure employees to return to the office on a more full-time basis.
‘The extent to which an individual can work at home will often depend upon their employer’s particular view of home-working,’ he says.
From his legal work, Pavey believes there could be an increasing number of employment tribunals in the future that involve employees who have either been dismissed or have resigned because their employer will not support their home-working preference.
‘The big issue and where it seems to be cropping up more is in relation to a health condition,’ he continues.
Pavey argues that many employees with disabilities have found that working at home has helped them better manage their condition.
‘Employers are going to have to be very careful about discrimination and less favourable treatment and specifically reasonable adjustments,’ he says.
‘Because people have been working from home for such a long time, and for the most part without that causing real issues for organisations, it’s much harder now for an employer to say, “Continuing to work at home isn’t a reasonable adjustment” when it’s proven to have worked over the past 18 months.’
For those employees who do want to return to the office or those who cannot work remotely, safety protocols in the workplace remain an important safeguard.
Interestingly, however, the Willis Towers Watson survey found that only one-in-five employers have encouraged their employees to get vaccinated. What’s more, none of the organisations surveyed have asked their employees to get vaccinated before they return to the workplace. Two-in-three organisations admitted they had no intention of doing so.
The survey findings also reveal businesses are still undecided on whether they will drop or maintain safety protocols and social distancing while at work.
IOSH argues that these safety protocols are critical. ‘All organisations should have a policy on COVID-19 on what they do and what they expect their employees to do when they return to the office,’ says Edwards.
‘That’s down to them doing their workplace risk assessment on how they are going to keep their employees safe and the outcome of that will help to determine their policy.’
As Staves points out, hybrid working isn’t practicable for all roles. L’Oréal employs more than 85,000 employees plus temporary workers and for some of its staff, particularly those who work in its factories, it was ‘business as usual’ during the pandemic especially as the company converted its manufacturing processes to provide sanitiser to hospitals and care homes during the pandemic.
This pattern has continued as the employment sector recovers from the pandemic and because manufacturers need to be on-site, there is a requirement for managers to spend time in these locations supporting their staff.
Also, because L’Oréal has had staff onsite during the pandemic, health and safety protocols have been a priority throughout to ensure a safe working environment is provided for employees wherever they are in the world.
He adds that the future of work cannot be a one-size-fits all approach. For this reason, the French cosmetics giant has adapted its working models to individual business needs, as well as the culture of the workforce in specific countries.
‘It’s critical to get the right approach for our employees no matter what role they have or where they are in the world,’ he says. ‘That means companies must be flexible and adapt their approach.’