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Why a virtual return to the office could be a win/win for people and employers

Future of Work|Inclusion and Diversity|Health and Benefits|Talent|Total Rewards|Wellbeing
COVID 19 Coronavirus

By Amanda Scott | June 9, 2021

Amanda Scott examines the opportunities that a virtual return to work would offer employers.

Imagine this. You have a disability or are recovering from an illness that used to make getting to the office a long, complicated struggle. You would navigate a series of public transport obstacles and make it to your desk, already exhausted from the effort of the commute.

You’re a new mother and you’re breastfeeding. Planning to attend a meeting in the office, you pump and pump, marveling at how long it takes to produce every precious ounce before you rush into your workplace after a tearful goodbye to your baby. At the office, you continue to take calls from the ‘pumping room’ hoping no one walks in or notices the noisy machine in the background. Leaving the office you worry you haven’t produced enough work or milk for the day, or both. You frantically dash home afterwards to a hungry child because you had to send that one last email.

You’re looking after your elderly mother, who is getting more and more forgetful. In the pandemic, you’ve been working from home. You don’t live far away from your mum, so it’s easy to pop in to check on her, make sure she has enough food and that the cat’s fed. When you’re back in the office, you won’t be able to check on her as often, pick up the phone as much when she calls, pop in at lunchtime. Who will look after her?

A better way to work

As we come to terms with what hybrid working could look like, it’s vital not to just mindlessly go back to the old status quo. Instead, we should seriously consider the opportunities that flexible working has given us. We have an opportunity for reflection and correction.

Now that so many people have experienced working from home, we are wondering why we used to be so wedded to life in the office. While office life suits some people some of the time, it doesn’t necessarily work for everyone all the time. Many of us are realising for the first time how nonsensical it was to keep battling into the office at certain points of our lives, irrespective of the personal toll it took.

What if companies offered a 'virtual return to work' after the pandemic? People recovering from serious illnesses could come back to work on their own terms, gradually, in a way that is manageable for them and helps them to use their energy for work, instead of navigating the Northern Line at 8am. Parents could stay closer to their small children for longer. Carers for elderly parents could keep popping in at lunchtime until other support systems can be put in place.

Perhaps if we removed the physical barriers that make these returns to the office so daunting, we’d create a more engaged, productive and loyal workforce, full of energised people who are brimming with gratitude to work for enlightened organisations.

If employers were more open to flexible and remote working, they’d be able to recruit from a far bigger talent pool, too. Suddenly, new opportunities would open up to people who would rule out a full-time job with a full-on commute. This greater level of diversity would lead to better-run organisations. It’s a win/win.

Pandemics spark innovation. Now is the time to think creatively about what the return to work could look like – and what old-world expectations we can safely leave behind.

What opportunities would a virtual return to work present to employers?

  • Global Workforce: Embracing a hybrid virtual office will have a positive impact on diversity within organisations. They will be able to recruit from all over the UK, or perhaps even globally, with a far greater talent pool available than ever before.
  • Diversity and Inclusion: In a bid to improve performance and become better world citizens, employers are embracing ESG. Virtual returns to work, with the diversity and inclusion benefits they bring, could enhance employers’ approaches to the social aspect of ESG.
  • Agile Working and Innovation: Allowing greater flexibility over hours or location enables firms to boost agility and productivity.
  • Wellbeing: All of the changes will have a positive impact to employee wellbeing, which in turn will lead to better talent retention.

If you are considering a ‘virtual return to work’ policy, we’d be interested in hearing your story. Or if you’re interested in collaborating to innovate around your policies and practices in the context of hybrid working and diversity, equality and inclusion (DE&I), we are happy to work together to launch into the future.

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