William Phillips and Michael Whitmore: Covid-19 brings opportunity to reassess work policies

The Covid-19 crisis has forced many people to change the way they work, with a huge increase in the numbers working from home. As certain restrictions lift, and life for some begins to return to a ‘new normal’, employers may have the opportunity to rebuild work policies to better support those employees who want to continue working from home. This could produce wellbeing benefits for employees, without compromising on, and often increasing, productivity.

It is already known that working from home can provide mutual benefits to employees and organisations alike. Not having to commute can save many hours in the day, giving staff more time to spend on activities that are conducive to better mental and physical wellbeing. This could be cooking healthier meals or engaging with friends and family; activities known to improve wellbeing. It may also provide time for more exercise and sleep, both of which have been connected to improved physical and mental health.

Furthermore, Rand Europe’s data for the Britain’s healthiest workplace research shows that, in general, staff who are able to work from home and have flexible hours are liable to be absent less often and work at an optimum level, in essence, they lose fewer working hours to a lack of productivity.

However, before the health crisis, some staff may have felt hesitant to work from home, even if the option was available. This could be down to concern over balancing work and home responsibilities, the psycho-social issues of working alone and how to establish a suitable home-work space. But Covid-19 has shaken this all up.

Cannier employers responded by embedding new ways to support staff working from home, such as rolling out technologies to aid better remote working, allowing employees more control of their scheduling, conducting frequent work-related catch-ups and providing more realistic, clear targets and expectations. As a result, some staff and employers have become more comfortable at establishing personal and work boundaries and creating a shared new working experience.

There are millions of people for whom working from home is not feasible, however, such as those in emergency services, health and social care, hospitality, construction and transport. And there are those who need the workplace to keep safe as a necessary respite from domestic violence. For some, having different work and personal spaces offers an important separation as the increasingly blurred line between work and home may provide a temptation to work longer hours and burn out.

For these reasons, among many others, well-run workplaces are likely to remain important for employee wellbeing. Return-to-work and Covid-19 risk assessments, such as those produced by the Society of Occupational Medicine, will be important resources for employers to manage employee risk and help people get back to work.

Covid-19 brought about a working-from-home culture that could be embraced by employers. The next step could be for employers and employees to work together to create a future working environment which works for both; whether that be working from home, working more flexible hours, or maintaining a traditional nine-to-five routine in the workplace. By doing so, employers may demonstrate support, understanding and caring. An authentic workplace that recognises the needs of employer and employee and that has the potential to improve both wellbeing and productivity, could reduce the costs of preventable job absences and losses.

William Phillips is an analyst working in home affairs and social policy research, and Michael Whitmore is a research leader in health and work wellbeing, at Rand Europe

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