Royal Bank of Scotland’s decision to allow 50,000 staff to work from home for the rest of 2020 underlines radical changes in the workplace, experts say.
RBS said it was taking a «cautious approach» to keeping staff safe, a move echoed by similar decisions at the likes of Facebook, Google and Fujitsu.
The pandemic has forced a change in attitude among employers, said personnel expert Peter Cheese.
He called it «a moment of real change in the world of work».
And it is a change, added Mr Cheese, head of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), that puts staff more at the centre of operations.
Originally, RBS had intended for its employees to work from home until the end of September, but it has now extended the period to early 2021.
On 17 July, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said companies would have more discretion to bring staff back to workplaces if it is safe to do so, from 1 August onwards.
A spokeswoman for RBS said: «Like we’ve done throughout the pandemic the decision has been made carefully, including considering the latest guidance from the UK government on Friday and our own health and safety standards and procedures.
«It’s a cautious approach but we feel the right one to take currently. We’re in a fortunate position that so many of our colleagues can work from home and we feel it’s the right decision to continue doing so into 2021.»
Since the coronavirus lockdown began, about 10,000 RBS employees have continued to work in branches and some offices to support customers, while another 450 employees whose jobs cannot be done at home returned to offices and call centres in June.
RBS says that it has been reconsidering how the bank works «in the longer term» and intends to tell staff about «future ways of working» later this year.
According to Mr Cheese, the pandemic is «forcing different thinking» from employers about the viability of allowing employees to work flexibly.
«We’re at a moment of real change in the world of work, driven by big existential crises. It’s a big paradigm shift, putting people much more at the centre of thinking,» he said.
Not working, but shirking
The CIPD, which represents HR professionals, says the UK has long lagged behind other nations in part-time work, due to a prevailing «culture of presenteeism», where bosses judge staff performance based on how many hours they spend in the office.
There is also a long-standing stigma around working from home, but the CIPD says the coronavirus lockdown has been an eye-opener for businesses.
A recent survey of 1,046 employers by the CIPD found that 28% believe the increase in homeworking during lockdown has increased productivity or efficiency.
More than half of workforces have been working from home continuously since March, and employers expect the proportion of staff who work from home all the time to rise to 22% post-pandemic, compared with 9% previously.
«There’s a longstanding belief that if you’re working from home, you’re shirking from home – you’re doing other things that are not work,» said Mr Cheese.
«Bosses are starting to shift towards judging output, rather than the number of hours spent in front of the computer.»
He said the pandemic had forced bosses to care more about the physical and mental wellbeing of their staff.
«It’s the biggest experiment we’ve ever had in homeworking. A lot of individuals quite like this – they have better work-life balance and they don’t feel they’re being scrutinised, and they don’t have to commute,» said Mr Cheese.
Not everyone wants to work from home, whether it’s because they live alone, or they have challenging personal circumstances, such as caring for young children or relatives.
But the pandemic is making employers see staff as people, as opposed to «tools» of the business, he added.
«Understanding those aspects of their wider lives and their mental wellbeing – it’s created a mindset shift of understanding how we can manage people better.»
Entrepreneurs, business strategists and HR experts have been discussing the anthropology of work and its social and economic impacts for at least a decade, and the notion of flexible working has kept coming up.
Although the pandemic has accelerated thinking about how business processes could be changed to accommodate flexible working, the CIPD thinks it is unlikely that many firms will give up having physical office premises.
Instead, the industry body thinks that office spaces will become places where some staff work, or they work in the office at different times and on different days, and that the office space will be used more for face-to-face meetings.
«In the end, businesses need to make money, but not at any cost,» said Mr Cheese.
«What’s driven a lot of this thinking is the concept that the only person who matters is the financial stakeholder, but now we’re looking at multidisciplinary stakeholders – the business is responsible to their people, society and the environment.»