Dr Zofia Bajorek: What impact will the return to work have on employees’ work-life balance?

As the country continues its pathway out of the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) lockdown, conversations have invariably turned to what a return to the workplace will look like, and what this means both in terms of the flexible working agenda and employee health and wellbeing. Some have labelled these last 18 months as the ‘working-from-home experiment’, and proponents of flexible work have highlighted that this enforced working method has shown just how readily some roles can be adapted to be more flexible and could benefit employee work-life balance.

However, as I would argue this has not been a typical working-from-home experience, this has been working through a pandemic where organisational and government restrictions have been forced on employees, and many have struggled with the balance between work and home-schooling, caring or adapting to new office set-ups which may not given them the autonomy and work-life balance that flexible work could usually give.

Our Institute for Employment Studies (IES) Working at home wellbeing survey, published in April 2020, provided evidence to suggest that early on in the pandemic employees had fallen into the over-working trap when working from home. Respondents reported that shutting off was difficult, feeling that they always ‘had to be on’ in case there as a perception they were not working their full hours – could this be evidence for an hours worked, not quality of work mentality? – and people starting to work earlier, often mentioned as ‘making better use of what would have been my commute time’.

When discussing the return to the workplace and the implications of this for employee health and wellbeing and work-life balance, there are a number of key principles that organisations can think about. Employers need to engage with their employees to recognise what their needs are, and what would be best for them in terms of when and where they work. No two employees would have had the same experience of lockdown, and individual voices need to be recognised.  Now really is the time for employers to embed the principles of ‘good work’ and develop and/or re-evaluate health and wellbeing policies so employee wellbeing is central to any work planning decisions.

Managers at all levels need to set out clearly what they expect from employees if remote or hybrid working becomes more commonplace. If there is the expectation that any employee, working from home, or working flexibly can be contacted at all times and, crucially, is expected to respond, then this unhealthy. The culture of working longer hours is not new but should no longer be ignored by employers. Effective planning and management when considering returning to the workplace could enhance work-life balance, both improving employee health and wellbeing and organisational outcomes in the process.

Dr Zofia Bajorek is senior research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES)