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Are we returning to pre-pandemic ways of working?

A new report claims the increase of workplace stress is due to shifting back to pre-pandemic ways of working.

Online searches for ‘handling stress at work’ have risen by 200% in the last three months, according to law firm Whitehead Monckton. 

Antonio Fletcher, head of employment at Whitehead Monckton said this could be due to a slow shift back to pre-pandemic ways of working such as returning to working in the office, a general increase in workloads and redundancies having had a negative effect. 

More on work-related stress:

Work stress: balancing the bad with the good

How to prevent cumulative stress in the workplace

A stress risk assessment could transform the workplace

But have we really returned to our pre-pandemic workplace habits? And if so, what impact is that having? 

We asked some HR professionals to find out. 


HR risks being relegated to the backseat 

Pete Cooper, director of people, partners and analytics at HR software Personio: 

“Let’s face it, the world of work will never return to exactly how it was before the pandemic.

“The pandemic accelerated trends that were already taking shape. Workplace culture in particular has moved on leaps and bounds, whether that’s greater adoption of flexible, hybrid and remote working, or a greater focus on inclusive DEI policies and wellbeing initiatives. 

“HR teams have sat at the centre of this period of immense change, playing a really strategic role in enabling businesses to adapt and transform. But as we move out of crisis mode, it seems that some businesses risk moving back to their old ways when it comes to HR – seeing this as more of an administrative function, rather than a strategic one.  

“And this means that HR is being left once again to react to changes and crises, rather than anticipate them. 

“HR can play a vital role in helping businesses to adapt to the new world of work, navigate ongoing turbulence in the economy, and, ultimately, to thrive and grow. But to make this happen, HR needs time to invest in strategic decision making, and must be aligned with the core business.  

“Post-pandemic so much has changed in the workplace, but businesses must not slip back into bad habits when it comes to how they value HR.” 


Communication remains a challenge 

Paula Leach, founder of leadership coaching consultancy, Vantage Points Coaching: 

“Looking back to March 2020, it's hard to imagine how different our workplaces are today. With the return to commuting and in-person conferences, it might seem like we're back to pre-pandemic ways.  

“However, the predominant and sustainable impact of the pandemic is the newfound choice in how we work. Hybrid working models and greater integration of work and home life are now possible, offering both employees and employers flexibility. 

“Yet this shift presents a challenge for leadership and communication. With more variations in working locations, times, and approaches, leaders need to be adept at human connection and setting parameters. This is crucial for fostering a productive and inclusive workplace culture. 

“The challenge of leadership and communication is not only relevant to remote working but extends to all working models. Effective communication and dialogue about expectations related to collaboration, work quality, and output are key to success. 

"If the sustaining outcome of the pandemic is choice, the opportunity for leaders is to build human-centred cultures that prioritise effective communication and connection. By doing so, they can foster a productive and inclusive workplace culture that benefits all employees.” 


Flexibility is the key to progress  

Anna Whitehouse, founder of flexible working campaign Flex Appeal 

"Companies moving back to pre-pandemic ways of non-flexible working are the companies that aren’t putting their people first. It’s as simple as that – and it’s an inhumane approach to working.  

“Business lacks emotional intelligence. Think about it: from the minute you accept that job, you are told where to sit, when to sit; you are told when you can eat, whether or not you can go to a doctor’s appointment. You are rarely asked, ‘how are you?’ 

“This matters more than you might think. Research from Limead Institute found employees who feel cared for are 10 times more likely to recommend their company as a great place to work.  

“They are seven times more likely to feel more included and four times less likely to feel stress and burnout.  

“The pandemic brought flexible working into the fold, and for the first time, a level playing field between those who need flex and those who don’t was formed.  

“Let’s call it what it is: flexible working is simply ‘inclusive' working. Businesses that include as many people as possible from all communities from all ethnicities, those with caring responsibilities, and those with disabilities are putting their people first.” 


Management needs to adapt to a remote world 

Claire Williams, chief people officer at HR software provider Ciphr: 

“According to the ONS, around two fifths (44%) of people in the UK now work remotely some or all the week. Before the pandemic, it was around one in eight (12%). 

“It continues to be an evolving situation for a large proportion of employers, with many still working to optimise their hybrid working arrangements.  

“Remote working has many benefits, but it can lead to working increased hours and developing unhealthy working habits. Employers should continue to invest in communication and engagement strategies that enable self-expression, inter-team communication, and effective working practices.  

“Management, in particular, requires investment and support. Their roles have become the cultural gatekeepers to employees’ workplace experience on a day-to-day basis. So, there is a heightened need for them to have the autonomy to live the company values and culture in a way that they see fit, while also being held accountable for the KPIs in their area."   


Employers and staff debate going back to the office 

Jo Hind, co-founder of people transformation consultancy Birdsoup:

"There is a visible power struggle for some companies. They want their employees back in the office because of the feeling that you need to create – or recreate – the culture, or go back to the way things were.  

“However, employees are still resisting this, and research shows that it is a crucial factor for people applying for new jobs. 

“The real problem is that very few companies have made an attempt to train managers and leadership teams on how to operate for success in this new way of working.  

“This has bred the rise of the helicopter boss and lots of new bad habits like back-to-back Zoom meetings and companies using Slack to check up on people constantly.

“Managers are finding their jobs more stressful and feeling quite lonely because they are having to deal with this new way of working and the challenges that they are getting from leadership as well.  

“What organisations need is training, they need to upskill the workforce to understand and get the most out of their teams in the hybrid world, with training so that they can thrive not just survive today."