Covid-19 is set to have a long-lasting impact on the way we work. A recent British Council for Offices (BCO) survey found that almost half of office workers (46 per cent) in future want to split their time between working in the office and working from home, following the enforced working from home period during lockdown. Employers who have previously been sceptical about home-working have seen in 2020 that staff can be just as productive at home, and perhaps more so, once the commute is removed from the working day. Indeed, many employers are examining their properties and asking whether, long term, they need as much expensive physical office space.

This year, in addition to temporary workplace closures, we’ve also seen employers having to make drastic decisions to protect the liquidity of their businesses; from imposing pay freezes and pay cuts to cancelling bonuses and widespread redundancies. Not only that, the government furlough scheme has also brought about an unprecedented change which we now see continuing into 2021, leaving many employees in continued uncertainty on the status of their employment. It’s been a tumultuous year for plenty of businesses, and we’re still grappling with the fall-out and what it means for the future of work.

The dividing work place

Whilst some changes are immediate and impossible to ignore, another significant change which is happening in slow motion is a creeping tendency towards an “us and them” culture forming in some workplaces. Workplaces have become divided not just physically, but also according to the different circumstances people have found themselves because of the pandemic. For example, those who have been either been placed on furlough, taken a pay cut or not received a bonus will feel in a very different position to those who haven’t. And whilst some of the changes affecting these employees are hoped only to be temporary, the effect on their careers is likely to last into 2021 and beyond.

The shift to working from home can also can divide colleagues along the lines of those who are allowed by their employer to work remotely and those who have to work in the office – as well as those who can easily work from home and those who can’t due to living in cramped shared accommodation or having childcare responsibilities. These divides can have the adverse effect of making employees feel they are at a disadvantage in comparison to their other colleagues. Indeed, their performance and productivity may be suffering for reasons outside their control. Furthermore, the risk of employers being liable for employees developing back injuries or carpal tunnel syndrome while working from home at an inappropriate workstation is increased.

In addition, an increase in remote working means that some workplaces may feel less cohesive and lose the sense of togetherness that comes from being in the office. This is particularly true in teams or offices where the culture and performance is built on camaraderie and trust building between colleagues working closely together.

Similarly, without daily face-to-face interactions, issues at work may be more difficult to spot and may be more likely to fester. Existing cultural problems in a workplace may become more entrenched, and previously collaborative cultures may be under threat.

A breeding ground for legal disputes?

In this climate of heightened workplace tensions and low employee morale, legal disputes are more likely to occur. A common deterrent to raising a complaint is the prospect of continuing to go into work and facing awkward interactions with colleagues and management – with increased homeworking, this is less of a concern for employees, and so complaints are not only more likely to be raised, they are also more likely to be prolonged.

Employers must, therefore, be more proactive than they were pre-pandemic. It is important to take steps to identify, monitor and bridge any existing workplace divides. As we face a more dispersed, atomised workforce, employers will need to keep this under constant review.

Support and regularly check in with employees working from home

As a starting point, employers should take steps to enable those who are finding it difficult to work from home to do so more effectively by providing them with appropriate office equipment and IT support.

While recognising that there is no substitute for face-to-face interactions, it would be wise for employers to ensure that regular line manager catch-ups are organised to check in on employees, identify any problems they are experiencing early on and find ways to address them. These need to be more than a box-ticking exercise and may require persistence by the employer – many employees are likely, when asked, to say that they are “OK”. Therefore, it will often be appropriate to ask twice and to be proactive in keeping employees’ performance and wellbeing under review. We all recognise the potential impact of the pandemic on mental health, and if employers are not sufficiently prudent, they are at risk of being held responsible for employees becoming unwell. Claims for disability discrimination in the employment tribunal and for personal injury in the High Court may then follow.

Set up virtual events

In the absence of physical social events, a greater sense of workplace unity can be encouraged by setting up virtual events, from training to social activities. However, the first lockdown showed us that many employees quickly grew tired of relentless quizzes, and a sizeable proportion of the workforce do not enjoy “organised fun”. To increase participation, employers should ensure a sufficient variety in types of events and be mindful of start and finish times so that those with childcare responsibilities are more able to join.

Ensure communication from leadership

Communication from leadership is also paramount in generating cohesion. This is not just in day-to-day interactions but is particularly the case when difficult decisions are made in relation to strategy, including restructuring, terminations or pay cuts. These decisions should be well documented and effectively communicated to employees. Employers should ensure that management remains visible to the rest of the workforce and that employees are kept informed on the state of the business with – where possible – regular updates from management for the whole company. This will help reduce the perception of workers being isolated and the feeling of being kept in the dark by a detached management cadre in an ivory tower.

Adapting to the new normal 

Many employers and employees rose admirably to the challenges presented by the first lockdown in quickly adapting to new ways of working. However, as we are learning, the workplace may not ever return to the old normal. Whilst that presents numerous opportunities, it also presents challenges, and employers should be thinking long-term what this means for their company cultures.

Indeed, as the pandemic continues to disrupt people’s working lives, it’s important for all businesses to think about how they can support their employees through these changes and how to foster a strong and unified work culture. This kind of practice will help companies be more stable and successful during this difficult period as well as in the long term.