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Research: How do people feel about returning to the workplace?

12 May 2020

With the UK Government now taking steps to ease the lockdown measures and set out its roadmap to allow businesses to open their doors for employees to return to work, our survey of 2,000 UK employees (conducted on 7 May 2020) charts how they feel about going back to work and what measures would make them feel safe.

  • Over half of employees are ready to return to work post-lockdown, assuming their employer has the right safety process in place.
  • 64% believe their employer has primary responsibility for their safety with 29% believing it is their personal responsibility.
  • Only 62% are willing and ready to sign up to a central Government contact tracing app vs 83% who are willing for an independent medical professional to conduct fortnightly COVID-19 antigen tests.
  • Younger generation more keen - Just 8% of workers aged 18-24 believe now is too soon for them to return.

The challenge for businesses cannot be underestimated. They need to get going again, in many cases it is an existential need, but they must also understand the expectations and responsibilities they have to their employees and customers.

The return to work raises clear issues around health and safety and the potential liability of employers if employees develop COVID-19 as a result of alleged exposure to the virus at work. Opening too early without the necessary measures in place could be counterproductive resulting in confusion, fear and worst of all more infection. The need to support employees in a return to work and engage with them clearly on new ways of working, safety and wellbeing must be at the very top of employers' agendas.

What new measures do people feel comfortable adopting in the workplace?

Next we took a look at potential measures being discussed as drivers to help minimise risk in the workplace – and asked the public how they felt about them. We have ranked the results from the measure the public were most willing to adopt down to the measure that the public were most unsure of/unwilling to adopt.

Would you be willing to accept the following measures if it allowed a return to work?

It is evident from the survey that the British workforce is keen to get back to work – but with conditions. They expect their employers to follow the guidance which is coming from government, keep them informed and ensure that their workplace is safe to return.

It is vital that employers have carefully considered what measures will work for them.  This should be supplemented by a clear risk assessment and robust policies and procedures. They must clearly communicate changes to the workforce and help their people to understand steps they are taking to protect health and safety. There should be special consideration for those workers particularly vulnerable to complications arising from COVID-19 or those with caring responsibilities. Those employers with the ability to do so may initially take the view that it is better for people to continue working from home, and for some this will be a long-term change, but all employers will need to be alert to the mental well-being of their workforce, particularly where employees are continuing to work remotely."

PPE in professional services versus other industries

Broadly speaking, sentiment for the potential measures was similar across industries, however one area where we noted more of a divide was in the use of PPE in the workplace. In traditionally more 'professional' industries the public are far less likely to be willing to wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

For example, 80% of those in manufacturing would be willing to wear PPE vs just 52% in finance and banking.

It's important that businesses consider their sector for this measure, in particular when evaluating its use and communication with their employees.

What about data concerns?

The fact that a central Government contact tracing app was the biggest barrier for potential return to work measures, suggests that data and privacy are still a key concern for the British workforce. That being said some of the other measures also have key data implications.

The British workforce are seemingly willing to allow their employers to conduct medical testing, giving them access to more personal data, including sensitive medical data, than ever before.

It seems unlikely that British workers would have felt this way six months ago, but we are in uncharted territory. It opens up serious questions for businesses that are considering taking this route, over whether they have lawful grounds under data protection law to collect such data and, if they do, how they secure and use the data.

These are questions for both the immediate and long-term, especially as attitudes to data collection and use may flip back when we emerge from this crisis.

About the survey

The survey of 2,000 UK employees was conducted by 3Gem on behalf of DWF between 6-7 May 2020. 3Gem researchers are MRS and ESOMAR accredited, with decades of combined market research experience.

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Webinar recording: Managing your workplace post-lockdown