Woman working at desk, writing in a notepad, businesswoman

Article by Jamie Turner, Vice President People & Talent at IDnow

It’s no secret that bringing people back to the office has been a challenge for employers nearly everywhere following the COVID-19 pandemic.

The battle is front and centre for many companies and isn’t limited to just a few sectors or geographies. The UK is no exception to this, as recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) indicate: 14 per cent of employees still worked exclusively from home in May 2022 (compared to 22 per cent in February 2022), while the proportion of hybrid workers rose from 13 per cent to 24 per cent in the same period. In other words, more than a third of the UK workforce (38 per cent) is working either fully remote or in a hybrid setting.

Productivity and flexible work in tech companies

Even though tech and software businesses might be best equipped for remote or hybrid work, simply because the work itself is conducive to office or home environments, many of us have struggled to find ways to bring employees back and set up hybrid working schemes that satisfy all sides. This is especially noteworthy since IT professionals have worked remotely even before the pandemic. Particularly for developers, the quiet of their remote surroundings and flexibility to work at any hour can be beneficial for productivity. This has been demonstrated by research, where 68 per cent of developers stated that they are able to get more meaningful work done while working remotely from home, compared to only 32 per cent who said they are more productive when they are fully in an office environment.

Productivity from a home office is not entirely surprising.  Research from back in 2015 already showed that people can be very productive in a work from home setting where we saw the first signs of home office employees being more efficient than their office-based colleagues. And while working from home certainly brought advantages for employers in terms of productivity, it also improved the work-life balance of employees drastically. Three-quarters of people polled by the ONS stated that working from home improved their work-life balance. Plus, it allowed greater flexibility especially for working parents. A win-win situation, for most.

Accommodating parents in a remote work setting

This greater flexibility is also reflected in another statistic: according to recent research in the UK, just one in ten women working from home planned to return to the office. This may very well be because of the need to adjust to balancing domestic responsibilities vs. work during the pandemic. Now, in the face of returning to an office, understandably new parents ask themselves if having their child in day-care in order to go to an office is worth it, especially when taking into account commuting time and the money spent on the childcare services. This is especially true for women (who typically have the longer parental leaves of the two parents) and for those women who spent some or most of the pandemic on parental leave. The preference is a setting where they are closer to home and their children, but is that indeed the best thing for the new parent?

In fact, we even saw an increase in the percentage of mothers who considered leaving the workforce entirely post-Covid due to the additional stress the pandemic created. The decision to return to work is daunting for any new parent, since it is usually the first recurring separation from the child. So, to convince one to leave their home now, after having the proof that working from home can work out and offers increased flexibly for domestic responsibilities, the work must be convincing in and of itself. It must be worthwhile and fulfil a greater purpose and/or provide an environment for enrichment.

A recent Harvard Business Review article on the value of the office cited that:

  • 85 per cent of employees would be motivated to go into the office to rebuild team bonds.
  • 84 per cent of employees would be motivated to go into the office if they could socialise with co-workers.
  • 74 per cent of employees would go to the office more frequently if they knew their “work friends” were there.
  • 73 per cent of employees would go to the office more frequently if they knew their direct team members would be there.

That just proves that people do make the difference! Office environments can foster that for women and new parents.

Reintegration into workforce post-leave

It is especially important to enable dialogue for recently returning parents to reintegrate into the company, particularly after a longer parental leave. Real human interaction in the workplace, without a digital interface or a screen, connects colleagues to one another and it increases trust and camaraderie. This is especially important for new parents. In my experience as a mother of two when returning to the office environment, the small talk that took place, actually brought great value to me and my family. It inevitably led to conversations around day-care integration and child developments, and even getting advice on things that had never come up before as new parent. Sharing tips, ideas, networks and connections to resources, shops, and services, tactics from experienced parents, etc. all came to me from talking with colleagues. This sharing and connecting makes the transition back to work from leave smoother, on a holistic and human level. It sheds light on what the new parent is going through and brings teams to better understand one another.

This also applies for COVID reintegration…a leave we ALL are returning from.

As a tech company, we want to allow women with families and all employees to continue the routines they have set up during the pandemic and provide structures that work well for both for the children and the parents. Which is why we set up a structured, mandatory hybrid model and encourage our staff to embrace working from home partially and return to the office partially with a clear and particular focus on reintegration and team connectivity.

It may seem obvious, but the office environment lends itself to the natural chit-chat about things that are going on or have gone on while being on leave. Team and organisational changes may be obvious, but the backstory, the reasons, and understanding what it means for future developments all come from being part of a change while it is happening. But when learning about changes only after they have happened, one needs the time to digest and acquaint themselves with the change. Such conversations are naturally missing from the agenda of online, “scheduled” meetings. Reintegration needs time and spontaneity. It is a change process in and of itself. In isolation and distance, reintegration will suffer.

We have created so many new ways of communicating since the beginning of 2020. Just think about how the workplace norms in a hybrid setting have adapted over the last two years. Anyone who may have been on leave during these times will need to get reacquainted and accustomed to these new norms and make sure they do not get left out.

Last but not least, a routine and a professional environment can be good for all professional development. Even just the act of dressing and preparing for work in a professional setting can be healthy as it signifies the return to a routine. When at home, work responsibilities can be left at the office, and the focus can be on domestic and/or family responsibilities. Separating the two in the early stages of return to office reintegration can be a healthy step especially for new parents facing the feeling of being pulled in so many directions at once, and therefore feeling unsuccessful at it all.

Making the most out of being “at the office”

Working from home in a hybrid arrangement, also means making a deliberate effort to be around others on the days spent in the office. In practice, employees need to identify the essential in-person meetings for which collaboration is key and then make them happen. Plan office days according to others that will be there at the same time, go to the shared spaces, have spontaneous meetings, drop by desks and make the most out of being at the office.

Conclusion

It’s our belief that having a mandatory, standardised hybrid-working model and a clear focus on providing both structured and unstructured team and social connectivity is the foundation for ‘normalised’ flexibility that is available at all times, because a transition back to work brings with it new situations, new realities and unexpected needs. Only with connectivity and flexibility can an employee and an employer count on one another.

Step by step, balance will be restored for us all, but it takes the structure from the employer and determination of teams collectively to make it happen.