Tensions may flare over European employers’ plans for hybrid working
Main image
Welcome back to the office
John van der Luit-Drummond, Editor

As the covid-19 vaccine rollout keeps European businesses’ return-to-office plans largely on course, a new survey has found a potential disconnect between employers and their workers on preferred hybrid working models, as well as concern over how the pandemic has impacted employees’ mental health and wellbeing.

The findings appear in Littler’s fourth annual European Employer Survey Report, which was completed by more than 530 human resources executives, in-house attorneys, and business leaders across Western and Southern Europe in September.

Despite the more infectious delta variant causing a rising tide of new covid-19 cases, more than half of respondents (52%) are proceeding with their return-to-office plans. Although more than one-third of those surveyed (36%) had delayed return in some fashion, only half of that subset said delays would stretch into 2022.

The report concluded that these decisions are likely driven by a range of factors, including the prevalence of government guidance around keeping the workplace safe and that, as of late August, 70% of European Union citizens had been fully vaccinated against the novel coronavirus.

“Broadly speaking, European employers have been eager to bring their employees back into the workplace – in part due to safety policies implemented and enforced by EU governments,” said Laura Jousselin, a partner at Fromont Briens | Littler in France.

“Though these policies can help usher along return-to-office plans, amid the wide-ranging novel and complex issues this pandemic continues to bring, employers also remain nimble and focused on adjusting their plans as the situation evolves.”

Not all European employers are moving forward at the same pace, however. While a higher percentage of employers based in France (65%) and Italy (62%) were found to be proceeding with return-to-office plans, far fewer are doing so in Germany (28%).

Vaccination policies

Return-to-office plans may be hindered by a lack of covid-19 vaccination policies. Almost two-thirds of European employers do not have a policy to address employee vaccination issues, such as requiring or encouraging vaccination, to ask about workers’ vaccination status, or to require or offer tests to unvaccinated individuals.

Although only 38% of employers are encouraging vaccination, 35% are offering covid-19 testing services – not an insignificant number, given the cost and administration burdens, the report said.

However, these findings stand in stark contrast to Littler’s 2021 US Employer Survey, which found nine-in-ten employers were encouraging workers to get vaccinated even before the Biden administrated mandated workplace jabs.

European employers do appear to be complying above and beyond respective local government covid safety guidance. Just 8% of respondents were found to be only implementing measures provided in government guidance.

Requiring workers (58%) and visitors (57%) to wear face masks throughout the office – mandatory stipulations in France and Germany, for example – as well as improving office ventilation (43%), and limiting or eliminating company events in the near term (40%) were found to be the most commonly implemented safety precautions.

Employees’ work model preferences

As companies implement return-to-office plans, tensions may flare if there is a disconnect between their plans and employees’ preferences for balancing remote and in-person work, the survey found.

Only 28% of respondents believe their organisation’s offered work models align with the preferences of employees who can work remotely.

More than half of employers (52%) believe employees want hybrid or remote work to a greater extent than they expect to offer it – and that figure is even higher for respondents in the UK (63%), Germany (66%), and Spain (60%).

Even so, European employers recognise the role remote or hybrid work plays in supporting employees. The potential for improving job satisfaction (57%) and employee wellbeing and work-life balance (54%) were cited as the top benefits of offering these models.

Enabling greater productivity (34%), reducing physical office costs (31%), and reducing other company costs (20%) – which all centre on improving the company’s bottom line – ranked significantly lower.

However, more than two-thirds of employers (67%) are somewhat concerned about the legal and logistical challenges of a workforce split between in-person and remote work.

Employers managing these new arrangements face an array of challenges, including scheduling obstacles, measuring remote work performance, and ensuring that remote employees feel included.

“Over the past year, employers have largely begun to see hybrid working models less as an opportunity to improve efficiency or cut costs and more as a way to attract new employees and keep their existing ones happy,” said Jan-Ove Becker, a partner at vangard | Littler in Germany.

“That’s a real and positive shift. Moving forward, however, it will be crucial to strike the right balance between employee wellbeing and the myriad logistical, legal, and cultural challenges these new models can pose.”

Improving employee wellbeing

On the subject of employee wellbeing, nearly three-quarters of respondents (73%) are concerned about the pandemic’s impact on employees’ mental health.

When asked about various resources to address mental health, more than half of respondents (53%) have opted for offering flexible work schedules. Other actions – such as training for managers, employee assistance plans, and internal programming – were all selected by fewer than one-third of respondents.

“It’s a positive sign that employers are truly recognising the importance of employee wellbeing and the significant toll the pandemic has taken on mental health. This will only become more important in the workplace of the future and in organisations’ efforts to attract and retain talent,” said Stephan Swinkels, Littler’s international coordinating partner.

“Offering flexible work schedules is a great step, but to maximise its effectiveness employers should consider providing other resources or benefits – such as training and internal programming – in tandem to deliver a more comprehensive solution.”

Technological disruption

With the pandemic accelerating the technological revolution, European employers report taking steps to equip employees with the skills they need for the workplace of the future.

Around half of organisations (48%) are developing internal training programmes, while more than one-third (35%) are actively looking to identify new skill sets and guide talent planning and job training.

Meanwhile, the pandemic appears to have stalled the collaboration and investment needed for employers to adopt artificial intelligence or data analytics solutions that would improve workforce management.

From HR strategy and employee management, to workforce automation, and recruiting and hiring, the survey found adoption of such tech remained relatively stagnant from when respondents were asked this question pre-pandemic.

In addition, as many employers shift to a hybrid working model, the productivity of remote workers is set to come under greater scrutiny. Nearly 60% of employers are either using (17%), planning to use (23%), or potentially interested in using (19%) software tools that track or monitor remote employees’ productivity.

However, respondents also expressed hesitancy about implementing these technologies, with the top concerns focused on the impact on employee morale and trust (42%) and workers’ fundamental rights beyond compliance obligations (39%).

Workforce reductions avoided

Although Littler’s 2020 survey found most employers worried about their ability to stave off job cuts during the pandemic, 60% of respondents in 2021 have not made workforce reductions or reorganisations – and the largest subset of those respondents (41%) do not anticipate doing so.

While the other 40% have made reductions or reorganisations in one form or another – roughly half of that subset (18%) do not anticipate further changes.

“Government support programmes saved millions of European jobs throughout the pandemic, and our survey data supports the effectiveness of these efforts. At the same time, the portion of employers citing the potential for future workforce reductions or reorganisations also shows that the full repercussions of the pandemic aren’t behind us yet,” said Raoul Parekh, a partner at GQ|Littler in London.

“The decisions executives make about how to structure their businesses for the long term, and the impact of the wind-down of government support, will continue to transform workforces across Europe in the months to come.”

Diversity and inclusion

From the global movements to promote gender and racial justice, and the disproportionate burdens placed on women during the pandemic, companies worldwide are facing renewed scrutiny of their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts (DEI).

While employers surveyed are taking a range of actions to support DEI goals – and 72% say they have at least some DEI goals or plans – each action was chosen by fewer than one-third of respondents.

Only 30% are implementing equality plans or revising recruiting and hiring practices, while 28% are increasing training and professional development opportunities for female and diverse employees.

Even fewer are providing programming and educational resources (22%), promoting DEI goals at company events and in internal communications (19%), and developing employee taskforces to discuss DEI issues (18%).

It should be noted, however, that a late 2020 survey of global HR professionals found that 76% of companies have no diversity or inclusion goals whatsoever.