I was training a group of representatives a couple of weeks ago and, as it often does, the return to office working was highlighted as the number one ‘Hot Topic’ in their organisation. The senior management team had recently declared that “it will allow employees to work from home one day a week”. Fortunately for this organisation, some of the representatives had the IPA’s tool, 15 Strategic Questions, at their disposal. The representatives shared these with the senior managers and suggested they use the questions to better understand how that decision was made. The discussion stalled at question 2 – “what is the core objective?”

This fundamental question had not been addressed when deciding on the one-day at home per week policy, and senior managers had come to this decision based on a hope that this “compromise” would cause the minimum of adverse reactions. That the decision had caused the opposite was a source of surprise. The discussion identified that the core objective of the organisation, in relation to where people worked, should be to maximise the productivity and well-being of each individual member of staff. It was quickly concluded that the allowance of working from home one day a week did not necessarily meet that core business objective.

It is understandable that senior managers in many organisations are struggling with these dilemmas. HR professionals are used to establishing policies for an entire workforce but the pandemic and lockdown have created circumstances where broad policies will not meet the needs of either the organisation or individual employees. The important question of location of work has to be addressed from individual perspectives not from a corporate one. Unlike with many of the other big issues organisations face, here there is no legal foundation to support a corporate policy.

Work from home policy

It is the view of IPA that collective and individual consultation with employees has never been so important. This does not mean that every employee can simply choose how they work in future based on individual preferences and circumstances. It does mean, however, that detailed discussions must be held with every individual that take these preferences into account with an equal consideration of business requirements. Managers and HR professionals will need to prepare carefully in order that they can address the following questions:

  • What are the needs and expectations of the organisation in terms of the individual?
  • What are the individual’s circumstances in terms of where they need to work and where they can work?
  • How will the organisation measure individual productivity?
  • How will the organisation effectively monitor mental health?

The recent press reports about the so-called ’Great Resignation’ show that people have strong views about where they want to work and employee expectations and entitlement will be critical factors in discussions. There is already anecdotal evidence that people are resigning or choosing not to accept jobs based upon an organisation’s strategy towards working from home. One employee representative in the south of England mentioned to me that two workers in their organisation had moved to Scotland on the assumption that their jobs could now be done anywhere. Others are waiting to see what their organisation will offer before they make decisions like this. That suggests that consultation and discussions are not yet taking place constructively. People should not have to “wait and see”, they should be involved now.

Employee Involvement

Organisations need to acknowledge that they will not be able to please everyone when it comes to this issue. There will be difficult conversations where the business needs require people to work in ways that would not choose. Some people have relished working from home while others cannot wait to get back to the office or site. Some individuals will inevitably be looking at things from their own perspective rather that of the organisation they work for, so the potential for conflict is increased. Meaningful consultation and discussion will limit the potential for conflict but it has to happen before any final decision has been made. If organisations present a single option for people to work from home one, two or three days a week, it is perfectly reasonable for their employees to ask how that offer has been arrived at and how thoroughly it has been thought through. Conflict will occur if organisations are unable to address such challenges. However difficult it may appear, it is essential that these individual conversations take place now. A broad-brush approach to the issue of where people are going to work will not help organisations or the workforce address future challenges.

The organisation I referred to at the start of this article used our 15 Strategic Questions to build a joint communication with the representatives that set out how people would be consulted and what issues would be addressed in those conversations. The core objective was clearly stated and people have been able to express their ideas based on that objective. It has already become clear that working from home one day a week will not be a panacea and several ways of meeting the needs of the business and its staff are being explored. Creating a balance between work and life has always been a challenge for organisations and employees but we now have a great opportunity to engage people rather than alienate them.   

If you would like to know more about our training and how the IPA can help your organisation, then please contact Derek Luckhurst.