Last reviewed 2 September 2020

This article explores the impact of the pandemic on working lives and the changes to working practice in response to the crisis. Tricia Palmer, HR consultant in HR, interim director and leadership and personal coach, reviews the approaches employers have taken to respond to the new working environment, and how people are reacting to those changes. Much has been written about the “new normal”, so Tricia draws on an analysis of some of the literature, plus her personal experience of working in a London Borough during the early days of the pandemic.

Introduction

When the lockdown was announced in 2020, I had been working as an interim HR Director for a London Borough for all of two weeks. The Council had been attempting to introduce more flexible working and increased working from home for several years, but with limited success and take-up. Within 2 days, 85% of the workforce was working from home, with the remaining 15% being the frontline roles, which required face-to-face contact. The speed of this transition was truly remarkable, and was facilitated by an already strong IT infrastructure which supported remote working and a wealth of HR homeworking policies.

The groundwork had been done over the previous years, but it took a cataclysmic event to push people to exploiting the benefits to the full. Previously reluctant managers, who were adamant that the roles could not be performed effectively at home were pushed into accepting the situation and making the best of it. The moral of this story is “where there is a will, there is a way”. While no-one would wish for a repetition of the tragedy that is Covid-19, it is vital that we learn from the changes we have made and take the best of them forward into the future of work.

Review of a local authority response

The Council very quickly sprung into action and in addition to ensuring that those who could work from home did so, also made a number of changes in the way that it operated. The elected members provided good support, but also allowed the officers to make all urgent day-to-day decisions and manage the smooth running of services — it seemed that in the main, politics were parked for a while.

Local democracy is of course the bedrock of local services, but is not a system that serves well in a crisis situation. Daily Gold meetings of the Senior Leadership Team made quick decisions and while there were few meeting papers, all decisions were meticulously recorded. Senior officers were charged with scanning all the Government regulations and guidance, of which there was a proliferation, and these were reviewed on a daily basis. As HR Director, I was part of that Senior team, a place the previous Director had been battling over for some time. There was recognition that how we supported our workforce at this time would have a greater effect on the timeliness and quality of services to the community.

Daily staffing reports by managers showed that over 90% of the workforce continued to work, with sickness reducing to less than 2% and the rest being accounted for by holiday and non-working days. The incidence of Covid-related sickness was relatively low and the majority of individuals who were shielding because of underlying health conditions (either themselves or family members) could continue to work from home.

A daily staffing bulletin was produced which advertised redeployment opportunities, and over a period of 4 months 280 staff were voluntarily deployed into new roles, such as supporting the food hub, call handlers, home carers, bereavement support, registering deaths, plus community support and registering births once lockdown was eased. This was quite an achievement as all changes to roles were voluntary and there was no need to arbitrarily deploy staff.

The HR response ensured that everything was made as simple as possible, so redeployment was quick and efficient with a short supporting statement and a quick decision by the recruiting manager. Employee relations cases, such as discipline and grievance were suspended (except for the very serious ones) and virtual hearings were instigated.

Normal employment checks (such as right to work and identification, evidence of qualifications, etc) were accepted online whereas previously individuals were required to produce paper documents. Recruitment interviews were held online, as were all meetings.

This may all seem quite unremarkable, but there were significant anxieties among managers and HR colleagues in going down this route, which would have been deemed unacceptable in “normal” times. An assessment of the risks showed that they were relatively small, and we continued face-to-face interviews for those front-line roles working with children and vulnerable adults. The whole approach challenged many long-held beliefs about the right way to do things.

A daily staff communication from the Chief Executive and Senior Managers, plus a weekly managers bulletin from myself as the HR Director, kept everyone up to date on activities, changes and new procedures. A staff survey in July showed that this level of communication was widely appreciated with people reporting that they felt well-informed and were very clear on their individual roles and purpose. Regular online discussions with the Chief Executive and Senior Managers were held with staff and managers to update them on the situation and answer any questions or concerns they may have. Perversely, staff reported that their managers appeared to be more accessible during this time, as they made better efforts to have regular 1:1s and team meetings. I held regular workshops, often with the Director of Public Health, with managers to ensure that all the employee concerns were appropriately dealt with, including guidance on shielding, responding to test and trace and answering concerns on infection rates.

For the first time in my career, people reported that they would be happy with less communication! The aim here was to ensure that everyone received as much information as possible, given the mixed messages from the media, and we wanted to give too much information rather than too little.

The impact of such an unprecedented crisis meant that silo working all but disappeared and people turned their hands to whatever was needed. Managers commented on an increase in flexibility on the roles and duties people undertook. In return, there was greater flexibility from the managers on working arrangements, particularly to allow for caring responsibilities. I am aware of many employees home-schooling in the morning, then working well into the evening to complete their work. Managers also reported an increase in productivity, which supports the view that if you are clear on outcomes and priorities, and allow employees to manage their own work, you will get good results.

Working from home and mental wellbeing

The main area of concern, which came up repeatedly from all quarters was health and wellbeing. In the staff survey, nearly half the workforce reported levels of anxiety, and this increased as lockdown eased and individuals thought they may be asked to return to the workplace. This is supported by a recent CIPD survey which found that 45% of workers were anxious about returning to the workplace. This increased to 57% for those with a mental health condition and 48% if they had a physical health condition.

Staff reported anxieties mainly related to the health and wellbeing of themselves and their families. The Council had implemented a wide range of mental health policies from mental health champions to yoga sessions and mental wellbeing workshops, but (in my opinion) this did little to support a crisis of this magnitude. Individuals were seeking certainty in a very uncertain world, and the best the employer could do was to provide a supportive and flexible framework, with line managers encouraged to ensure that they were constantly in touch with their teams. Ad hoc arrangements grew with teams and groups having virtual coffee breaks, quizzes and local meetings in parks. These provided people with a way to keep in touch and continue some level of social interaction.

We were most concerned with individuals living alone — some reporting that they did not speak to anyone outside of work or going to the shops for several weeks. This was exacerbated for those who were shielding at home, and the level of social isolation even for those working is unimaginable. Many were really keen to come into the workplace despite the Government’s advice to stay at home, simply for some level of social interaction. This was not widely encouraged, but the Council did ensure that those at risk at home were able to come into the office and since the numbers were so small social distancing was easily maintained.

The conundrum for the employer is how far should they go in ensuring that these individuals are properly cared for, and raises the question of the role of work in providing social communities for individuals. It is interesting to note that generally younger people missed the social aspects at work, whereas the older workers (me included!) appreciated the benefits of working from home. Comments included “I don’t miss the commute, I can walk the dog at lunchtime, I can arrange my day better, it is easier to be available for emergencies, I can work when I am most energised — which happens to be early morning or late evening”.

Research by the Office for National Statistics found that the higher paid and more senior employers, unsurprisingly found it easier to work from home, particularly as they were more likely to have dedicated workspaces. In contrast, research by Cushman and Wakefield (Commercial Real Estate Services) found that young people were less comfortable with working from home; they reported that they thought young people would “cope well because they are digitally savvy, but older workers adjusted the easiest and the best — the majority had a dedicated workspace at home, and weren’t having to share with flatmates. Younger workers had built strong social bonds with their colleagues and had more distractions and challenges.” However, a significant number reported concerns about work–life balance finding themselves working all hours. It is difficult here to disentangle the impact of working from home and therefore “never getting away from it” from the increased pressures due to the Covid response.

Some commentators are observing that while work is getting done, it is very project focussed and the sense of connection is being lost. Mentoring isn’t happening as much as it did and those ad hoc conversations in the corridors that can lead to new ideas, problem-solving and better networking are lost. How much this eventually impacts on productivity is yet to be seen.

Wellbeing and the impact of isolation

It is clear that working from home isn’t for everyone and there is currently an increased interest in the impact of loneliness. There have been some very sad examples of this during the pandemic and I remember reading a news story early on of a 35-year-old man who took his life leaving a note to say he couldn’t stand the loneliness any longer. Recent research has shown that 5% of people report being chronically lonely and the overlap between loneliness and those at risk of low wellbeing is well documented. With physical distancing, being on lockdown, and relying increasingly on technology to connect, there is a risk that loneliness will increase along with social isolation.

In order to help tackle this issue, the Behavioural Science and Health academic research team at University College London recruited over 45,000 people, across as diverse a spectrum as possible, to take part in a study into how loneliness, social isolation and physical distancing are affecting our mental health. The study began in April and the early findings are:

  • individuals with mental health conditions are showing marked less confidence in Government

  • confidence in accessing essentials (such as food, medicines and electricity) is mixed

  • people with physical and (in particular) mental health conditions are particularly worried about not being able to access essentials

  • key workers, younger adults, those living in overcrowded households, and individuals with health conditions (especially mental health conditions) are reporting more daily stressors

  • concern for family and friends and getting food are ranking as the most prevalent stressors (reported by over half of the sample); more prevalent than catching or becoming seriously ill from Covid-19

  • types of stressors are varying substantially by age and existing mental and physical health conditions, and key workers are substantially more worried about work than non-key workers

  • among major stressors, women and younger adults are reporting more major stressors, as are key workers, people living in overcrowded houses, people of lower income, and people with physical and (in particular) mental health conditions.

It is likely that some of the concerns around accessing necessities may have reduced over time as lockdown eases, but nevertheless the findings on confidence in Government and the stressors on key workers, young people and individuals living in crowded households will still be around.

It is important for employers to recognise these concerns. The What Works Centre for Wellbeing identifies that there is evidence to show “that having someone to rely on in times of trouble is the top driver of a high-wellbeing nation. Helping others and having purpose, supports personal wellbeing.” Therefore employers can support individuals by ensuring that their work has meaning and that they know there is someone to support them if they need it. This could be a line manager, colleague or professional support from a counselling service. The key here is for people to understand they are not alone, and informal approaches are often more effective than formalised policies. The regular virtual coffee mornings, the informal call from the boss, virtual team events (quizzes, gin nights, discussions), buddy systems and the encouragement for people to maintain friendships across the internet had a bigger impact than originally anticipated. There is not only a moral duty to support our workforce, but it makes good business sense to provide the right environment to support wellbeing, which will ultimately lead to more productive employees.

The Council made stringent attempts to ensure that regular contact was maintained with all employees, but it is apparent that this was not always the case with other organisations. Many individuals in my social circle were furloughed and received no contact from their employer other than a request to agree to be furloughed for a period of several months. This left them feeling isolated, unwanted and anxious. It has been interesting to follow their journeys back into the workplace and the level of commitment they have shown towards their employer, ie very little. In a recent study by Perkbox “59% of employees said that changes to the furlough scheme and the future uncertainty over the world of work had negatively affected their mental health, leaving them with rising levels of stress and anxiety”.

The CIPD carried out research in June 2020 on the impact of Covid-19 and working lives. Using their Good Work Index, which examines job quality and working lives, they tracked employees’ perspectives on working during the pandemic. The first survey sample of over 1000 UK workers was carried out by YouGov for the CIPD in April 2020. It provided insight into the impact of Covid-19 on key aspects of work and issues such as furlough and returning to the workplace. This survey is now being carried out monthly, and an excerpt from the report shows the following findings.

A number of key concerns for employees are identified, including work–life balance, wellbeing and job security. That said, the CIPD reports that employees’ experiences of working during the pandemic differed depending on individual circumstances, with some adapting to working remotely, others furloughed and many still attending their normal places of work. Within the survey sample:

  • 21% were furloughed — and half of these said they did not know when they would return to work

  • of those still working, 61% were working remotely all the time

  • 39% were going to their normal workplace for some or all the time.

Flexible working and work-life balance

It is evident that maintaining a healthy work–life balance has become increasingly challenging during the pandemic, with 3 in 10 people surveyed finding it hard to fulfil commitments outside of work due to time spent on their job. This figure increased to 4 in 10 for those who were juggling increased caring responsibilities with work. Similarly, those with increased caring responsibilities are more likely to say they are finding it difficult to do their job properly due to other commitments. 30% said their ability to work has been impacted by a change in caring responsibilities since the outbreak. In addition:

  • 32% of people surveyed say they are finding it difficult to fulfil commitments outside of work due to time spent on their job, compared to 24% in January 2020

  • this is particularly true for those whose caring responsibilities have increased during the pandemic; 39% of this group reported difficulty fulfilling commitments outside of work because of time spent on their job, compared to 28% of those without increased caring responsibility

  • 14% of those with increased caring responsibilities said they found it difficult to do their job properly because of commitments outside of work, compared to 7% without increased caring responsibilities.

Job and financial security

Job insecurity is on the rise due to the pandemic, with more workers saying it’s likely they’ll lose their job compared to January 2020. Employees are also unlikely to be looking to leave their jobs in the next 12 months, suggesting that job loss or lack of job opportunities is a real concern for workers.

This is a particular worry for furloughed workers, who face uncertainty about their long-term job security. They are also more likely to report financial concerns, with almost 6 in 10 saying their financial security has become worse since the pandemic. 22% said it was likely they would lose their job in the next 12 months, compared to just 13% in January 2020.

  • 38% of furloughed workers think it likely they’ll lose their job in the next 12 months.

  • Only 13% of respondents said they would voluntarily quit their job in the next 12 months.

  • 39% think their financial security has worsened since the Covid-19 outbreak — rising to 57% for furloughed workers.

Health, safety, wellbeing

While there has been a huge increase in homeworking, many are going into their normal workplace. Health, safety and managing the risk of infection is a top priority in these workplaces. Positively, many (58%) said they were able to socially distance at work and had the right protective equipment (61%). However, a significant minority said they didn’t have these resources in place. Almost half (47%) are concerned about catching Covid-19 at work. This highlights the importance of consulting with employees on health and safety measures and informing them of the measures being taken to ensure workplaces are Covid-safe. This appears to be quite a conundrum for employers as a further survey in Japan reported that workers became more anxious the more safety measures were instigated.

The CIPD Good Work Index has tracked mental and physical workplace health since 2018, showing a steady decline in recent years. This trend has continued through the pandemic and it is clear that Covid-19 has had a direct impact on mental and physical health, around four in 10 workers saying that their mental and physical health has worsened since the pandemic. Those with existing health conditions are finding this time particularly challenging with 28% saying that work had a negative impact on their mental health. However, it is worth noting that this only represents a small increase compared to 27% who said this in January 2020.

  • Similarly, 31% said work had a negative impact on their physical health, up from 26% in January 2020.

  • 43% said their general mental health has worsened since the outbreak, rising to 52% for those with an existing mental health issue. This should be noted against those saying work was having an impact on their mental health which has only increased by 1% since January. We may surmise from this that it is the general environment caused by Covid-19 that is causing the concern, rather than specifically work-related issues.

  • 35% said their general physical health has become worse.

Looking ahead

As many organisations start to shift their focus to enabling employees to return to the workplace, different concerns are emerging:

  • 44% are anxious about returning to work, rising to 62% for those with an underlying health condition

  • 53% with increased caring responsibilities are anxious about returning

  • 31% of respondents felt anxious about their commute, rising to 52% for those in London.

Flexibility, wellbeing, health and safety are priorities for organisations as they reopen their workplaces. These findings highlight that it’s imperative to take into account individual circumstances, such as existing health conditions, how people get to work, and caring responsibilities. Communication and consultation with staff will be key to ensuring any return to work is safe and people feel safe. As we all know, this is a time of rapid change and how employers communicate with and support staff during this will undoubtedly impact job quality, and employees’ trust in their employers. The following section explores these issues in relation to coming back to work.

Returning to the workplace

It is interesting to note here that many HR colleagues are reporting that managing the return (or not) to the workplace is proving more complex than the mass exodus on lockdown at the end of March. There are many pressures to consider.

  1. Do we need to return? The Government is now encouraging businesses to get people back to work as the impact on city centre businesses is becoming evident. However, a significant proportion of the workforce do not wish to return either because they enjoy working at home or because they have anxieties for themselves and or their families should they return. A recent survey by the CIPD found that 12% of employees did not trust their employer to provide a safe work space.

  2. Would this be a good time to divest ourselves of expensive properties and office accommodation? I am aware many Councils are considering new property strategies as part saviour towards their financial difficulties.

  3. What do we do about employees who are simply too anxious to return and how can we support them with the journey to work, especially those who travel on public transport?

  4. If a return is deemed necessary, how can we put in place the requisite precautions to ensure social distancing and a safe working environment? Many Council buildings are old with narrow corridors and poor facilities, so while there may be enough desk space to accommodate up to 50% of employees, this number is dramatically reduced (to about a third in my experience) due to the poor design of common spaces.

  5. If homeworking is to become more of the norm, how do organisations provide the social interaction craved by many and the serendipitous corridor conversations? What will be the longer-term impact, if any?

  6. Local authorities are about local communities and have a responsibility to provide that sense on place. Is this possible when 70% of the workforce could be working from home?

  7. How does the organisation maintain its culture and brand when there is a lack of physical presence?

These are all relatively new questions and, as HR professionals, we will be involved in leading the way for new ways of working and communicating. A number of technology-based (eg Twitter, Facebook, Fujitsu) organisations have made it clear that working from home will be a permanent fixture, announcing “work from anywhere” policies. However, the more people-based businesses are taking a more cautious approach. PwC announced in July that their offices would be operating at at least 50% capacity by the end of September, stating that “bringing people together is important for teams, good for communities and good for the economy”. It is clear that different organisations are taking different approaches to the return to the workplace depending on location, type of business and organisational culture. The CIPD survey of HR professionals (August 2020) found the following:

  • 21% of organisations are asking staff to return from the start of September

  • 7% of organisations said some time in 2021

  • 5% of organisations said never

  • 31% said they would oblige staff to come back for a certain number of days a week unless shielding

  • 8% said they would oblige staff to come back a number of days a week even if they were shielding

  • 56% said they would enforce a rotation system where different teams would come in on different days

  • 22% were planning temperature checks at entrances

  • 77% said they are offering staff more options for remote working

  • 10% weren’t offering more options for remote working

  • 13% said they would offer limited remote working.

It will be interesting to note how the changes to the way people work pan out over the next year or so, but in the meantime it is clear that this is a changing situation, which will require significant adjustments to the way we manage.

Future leadership styles

The key to a successful return/continuation of remote working will be clear leadership and well-thought-out employment policies. As people adjust to the new environment leaders, managers and HR professionals will need to become sophisticated in their approaches. Flexibility and treating people as individuals will reap the most benefits. The old styles of leadership and management processes (eg autocratic, linear planning and one-size-fits-all) are no longer fit for purpose.

The leaders I have seen rise to the challenge of this VUCA world are fleet of foot, pragmatic and flexible with just the right level of compassion and empathy. They are outstanding communicators with high levels of self-awareness and resilience, demonstrating excellent emotional intelligence coupled with a strong sense of direction and self-belief. The leadership framework for an organisation will become more important as it focusses on the organisation’s values and expected behaviours, and the context in which we are all working. In a period of rapid change and uncertainty, quick decision-making, sense of purpose and an ability to learn as you go will be vital. A tall order and one which will require significant behavioural change for many.

References

  • Impact of Covid-19 on Working Lives (June 2020), CIPD Survey

  • Recovery Readiness Post-Covid (May 2020), Cushman and Wakefield

  • Brief Guide to Measuring Loneliness (February 2019), What Works Centre for Wellbeing

  • Coronavirus and its Social Impacts Survey (June 2020), Office for National Statistics

  • Psychological and Social Effects of Covid-19 in the UK (April 2020), University College London