Even though it’s more than three years since the workforce was told to pack up and go home by the government and the UK exited the EU, HR leaders are still contending with an array of challenging consequences, some longstanding and others newly emerging.

These encompass skill shortages, recruitment complexities, adjusting to hybrid work models and the ongoing cost-of-living crisis. The question is: how do we regain control? How do we encourage attraction and retention, and support team development?

In a recent survey by YOHO Workplace Strategy, over 600 UK HR leaders and directors shared what concerns them most about our current working practices and ways of work.

The most pressing by far was the impact of remote working on company culture, with nearly one in three HR leaders describing it as a significant worry. Other notable concerns included the changing HR mandate, the lack of alignment on hybrid and flexible work arrangements, the potential for AI to replace jobs, and the rapid increase in stress and burnout among employees and management.

The impact of remote working on company culture

The surge in remote and hybrid work arrangements has permanently altered the dynamics of company culture. While technology enables employees to collaborate effectively, it has also led to a loss of connectivity – the social capital that face-to-face interactions once nurtured. This sense of disconnection has extended to our company cultures and values.

To give this some context, the YOHO survey revealed that a staggering 40% of employees aged between 25 and 40 are concerned about the impact remote working is having on company culture.

One reason is that working remotely introduces differences in how, when and where we work, which creates a sense of separation from teammates, and impairs collaboration – a core cultural principle that binds employees together as community.

Plus, interacting through digital channels rather than face-to-face, alters the way we exchange information, for example, making it much more difficult to pick up cues from body language.

Research suggests return-to-office mandates are failing, with workers on average now attending the office just 1.4 days a week. So, cracking the whip is not always the most effective strategy. Some workers hate isolation, love the buzz of the office and crave more time with their colleagues. Others find they have become much more productive working at home, with less distraction, and don’t mind the isolation. Where more time in the office is the only way to maintain productivity, business leaders should share the reasons with staff and offer incentives to encourage them back. Consider investing more time to better understand your employees – offering some flexibility is far more effective than a hard mandate. If you don’t, your competitors will – workers will respond to employers who show little empathy or flexibility, by voting with their feet.

Remember, too, that this situation is continually evolving, so keep monitoring and re-evaluating.

Steps to take

  • Invest more time to survey your staff to better understand their needs and preferences, the things that keep them productive and those that cause them stress.
  • Foster awareness and openness regarding diverse working styles and arrangements. Encourage employees to share their challenges and their solutions, while avoiding judgment about how work is completed, focus instead on achieving timely results
  • Allocate time for regular online social gatherings or integrate short breaks for virtual coffee chats at the end of meetings.
  • Provide training for line managers on effectively managing, motivating and safeguarding the mental health of remote teams. Older managers, in particular, may require support to recognise signs of stress or frustration when engaging with remote staff.

The changing HR mandate

Brexit and the pandemic have brought substantial changes in the HR mandate. HR leaders have had to adapt to new regulations, workforce dynamics and priorities, emphasising the importance of flexibility, agility and a focus on employee wellbeing.

Just over 22% of those we surveyed cited talent recruitment as a primary shift in HR priorities, with work-life balance, Brexit and COVID-19, all contributing to the issue.

Coming in at 20%, productivity is a growing concern, too. Among more agile workers, our survey participants said greater emphasis is needed to address and improve workforce productivity (to maintain company performance).

To address worker assumptions, following the unplanned transition to home working, policies governing staff locations, work patterns and productivity had to be quickly drawn up. New initiatives to address an increase in sickness, attrition and mental-health issues were also hastily put in place. HR has also had to find ways to upskill employees in digital literacy, remote collaboration tools and other areas, to help them adjust to the new work paradigms.

With employers and employees continuing to adapt to new ways of working, HR now shoulders an increased responsibility for maintaining engagement and safeguarding company culture.

Steps to take

  • Acknowledge the implications of the evolving HR mandate for HR teams, recognise that they too face stress and health impacts from these changes.
  • Invest in HR resources and skills training, formalise the expanded role of HR to cover navigating the challenges of our constantly changing work patterns and places.
  • Foster increased collaboration between employers and workers to ensure fair work practices, equal opportunities, staff wellbeing – and company health.

Differing opinions on hybrid and flexible working

The transition to hybrid working has generated diverse and often conflicting perspectives among employees and employers. Crafting policies that balance the needs of the business with the needs and preferences of employees, demands empathy, effective communication – and skilled negotiation.

Despite the widespread adoption of hybrid work arrangements by most office-based employers, a KPMG CEO Outlook survey recently revealed that 63% of UK business leaders ‘anticipate a complete return to in-office work by the year 2026’.

The annual survey, which gathered insights from over 1,300 chief executives from the world’s largest businesses (including 150 in the UK), indicated that many executives are increasingly inclined to embrace the idea of a return to pre-COVID working practices.

The survey also highlighted that an overwhelming majority (83% of UK executives) believe that financial incentives and advancement opportunities may become tied to physical office attendance in the future.

So, it’s clear there are still opposing forces at work – and increasingly HR professionals will be required to help negotiate a path between employee and employer expectations.

Steps to take

  • Invest time and effort in regular surveys, with questions designed to help you better understand the diverse and evolving needs of your workforce and the factors which impact their wellness and productivity – then adjust and evolve your hybrid work policies accordingly.
  • Explain, negotiate, show integrity and build trust. Be transparent with your employees – explain when and why company objectives and performance necessitate changes in workplace policies. Don’t use fabricated rational simply to enforce company ‘preference’, staff will spot the deception a mile away, which will breed distrust.
  • Do your best to ensure sufficient face-to-face interactions within your ways or working – they are critical for mental health, innovation, creativity, energy levels and productivity
  • Use the new tools and systems available, and adjust diary schedules, to facilitate collaboration and clear, effective communication between remote and in-office staff. They will help maintain team engagement, and maximise performance.
  • Adopt a flexible and empathetic approach to accommodate varying needs and preferences among your workers. This isn’t showing weakness, it demonstrates that employers value their people as a critical asset and shows strength and empathy when negotiation and motivation are used instead of mandates, which foster friction and a reluctance to comply.

Stress and burnout among staff and management

Mental-health issues and burnout have become widespread among employees and management, aggravated by increased work pressures and blurred boundaries between work and home life.

Poor employee wellbeing is intrinsically linked to mental health problems, stress and burnout. Also, the physical work environment at home is unique to every employee including work location, desk setup and distractions (noise, children, pets, partners, dependent relatives and neighbours to name a few), so help to address these disparities is crucial.

Steps to take

  • Prioritise connectivity and social interaction to support mental wellbeing.
  • Conduct ‘confidential’ surveys to gain a deeper human understanding of the status, and the things impacting, the health and wellbeing of staff.
  • Upskill line managers in how to manage remote staff more effectively.
  • Consider employee wellbeing as a financial investment – research highlights those who do so gain a substantial return from positive mental-health interventions.
  • Prioritise clear, transparent and regular communication to reduce stress and anxiety, and promote sustained engagement.
  • Increase company IT support / resources to address employee computer and internet connectivity issues when working from home.

Concerns about the advancement of AI

HR professionals will increasingly be called upon to help alleviate worker concerns about the growing use of AI in business, from the prospect of job losses to expectations that they will have to start using this complex new technology to do their work. It is essential HR leaders and business leaders mitigate inherent staff fears through education and increased awareness of AI’s potential benefits – as a valuable tool which can improve their productivity and decision-making.

Encouragingly, our survey revealed a healthy level of positivity around AI and an acceptance that it is going to play a big part in the future of HR, and all our working lives. In fact, just under a third of all those surveyed (32%) felt AI could enhance decision-making which could lead to better and more precise outcomes. Just over 30% believe AI will increase productivity and efficiency.

Steps to take

To nurture a positive transition to AI in the workplace, HR professionals should prioritise education, access and communication.

  • Develop and publish a company AI strategy and supporting policies governing its use, including ethical AI guidelines which ensure fairness and remove the potential for bias.
  • Run an AI awareness and familiarity programme which promotes a balanced understanding of both the risks and opportunities of AI.
  • Create and publish a company process for reporting any security concerns, as well as procedures for formally investigating and resolving any that arise.
  • Communicate the company’s plans for AI in the organisation with transparency, along with the timeframes, such as plans for new AI powered systems.
  • Emphasise that all company and staff data will remain safe and will not be compromised by any AI powered, or connected, internal systems.
  • Provide access to Generative AI chat systems (such as ChatGPT) to help staff engage and explore its capabilities, in an environment with the necessary safety protocols in place.
  • Encourage employee input and feedback, and ensure all questions or concerns are addressed to build trust in how AI is being deployed within the business.
  • Develop AI reskilling and upskilling programmes to demonstrate commitment to employees’ career growth amid technological changes.
  • Support the ethical and effective use of AI in HR and keep track of evolving guidance on safe and ethical AI use, such as new governance legislation.

The evolving workplace landscape presents HR leaders with a host of challenges. However, by embracing flexibility, empathy and new solution innovations, HR leaders can address these concerns to successfully navigate our constantly changing ways of working. As ever, though, prioritising employee wellbeing and mental health should be at the forefront of HR priorities to ensure a healthy and productive workforce, now and in the years to come.

Grant Price
Grant Price
CEO at YOHO Workplace Strategy | + posts

CEO Grant Price brings more than 25 years of board and ‘C’ level experience to YOHO Workplace Strategy, a research-driven consultancy specialising in boosting employee wellbeing and productivity, and helping businesses prepare for the impact and implications of Artificial Intelligence. The company helps employers with office-based employees, solve challenges ranging from AI strategy development to wellbeing, attrition, attracting talent, remote and hybrid working, company culture, and working policies and procedures.