Out of office | Will cutting firms' energy bill aid start a new wave of mass homeworking?

Will cutting firms' energy bill aid start a new wave of mass homeworking?

The Government is set to slash energy bill support for UK businesses within months, prompting many to consider how else they can keep costs low for the year ahead.

The current Energy Bill Relief Scheme will end in March, the Government has confirmed. A new scheme, albeit less substantial, will be implemented from April and will last 12 months, providing more than £5billion of “transitional support” rather than suddenly cutting off energy aid altogether.

James Cartlidge, the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, said on Monday: “It is not for the Government to habitually pay the bills of businesses.”

The decision will lead to many questions for business leaders, chiefly among them how they will afford their office upkeep in such a turbulent economic climate

One of the most obvious solutions – and arguably the one easiest to implement – is shutting down the office temporarily. Doing so even for just a handful of days a week would save money on electricity and, particularly of note at this time of year, could save a small fortune on heating costs.

And having adapted to hybrid and remote working over the past three-plus years, the infrastructure already exists for employees to work from home. And there’s a recent precedent for firms considering asking this of their staff. Accountancy giant PwC closed its offices over the Christmas and New Year period in a bid to cut down on energy costs.

The firm, which employs about 24,000 people, shut its main London office as well as some smaller sites.

In a memo to staff, the firm said: “With many using the festive period to take a well-earned break from work, and with offices typically being quieter during that time, this year we will be taking the opportunity to reduce our energy consumption further by reducing the space we heat and light...”

Chairman Kevin Ellis said having all the firm’s 19 UK offices open over the festive period "doesn't make sense at a time of energy scarcity," adding that staff wanted the company to "do our bit to reduce energy consumption".

"Office life is hugely important to our culture and business," he said, adding: "But having all our offices open over the holiday period doesn't make sense at a time of energy scarcity.

"We've taken a pragmatic approach ensuring some offices across the country remain open for those who need them.

Furthermore, a survey of 1,000 senior leaders in late 2022, conducted by freelance platform Fiverr, found that 64% of businesses were considering reversing their rhetoric around encouraging employees back into the office due to rising costs.

However, this change of heart from businesses could spark backlash amongst UK employees. According to 1,000 UK office workers surveyed as part of the same study, the average worker predicts they could save £38 a month on home energy bills by coming into the office over the winter period.

Bukki Adedapo, Fiverr’s Head of UK, commented: “The divide between workers' and bosses’ opinions towards remote and office work is becoming increasingly apparent. We have now reached a point where productivity and in-person connection at the office is at loggerheads with UK businesses’ urgent need to cut energy costs during the winter period.

In addition, 41% of the companies surveyed said it is likely their remote work policies will change again in 2023.

For workers, this instability may be a cause for concern. During this time, it is vital that companies provide clarity on their intentions and give employees the support they need during this period of uncertainty. Employees that do not feel that they are being given the choice about how and where they work may seek positions where this choice is clear.”

Flexibility appears to be the best option

Recent research from HR, payroll, and finance expert MHR reveals a greater proportion of employees would prefer to work in the office with flexible hours (51%) than work from home with structured hours (41%).

MHR surveyed over 1,200 full time office workers across the UK and Ireland to learn how their experience working remotely during the coronavirus pandemic compared to their usual work practices – with many citing negative accounts.

Two-fifths (41%) of employees noticed a decrease in support from management and team members while working from home, meanwhile slightly more (42%) said there was a lack of conversation.

For almost four in 10 (37%) employees, this resulted in loneliness. The employees worst affected by loneliness were those at organisations that employ 100 or more people (39%) and new joiners (42%). Some employees felt the lack of social interaction was reflected in their work output, as a quarter (24%) said it made them less productive and a similar proportion (26%) said it contributed to burnout.

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Concerningly, one in 10 (11%) employees said working from home had a negative impact on their career progression and only 36% were asked about their preferred work environment before being told to work from home.

Anton Roe, CEO at MHR, said: “What is clear from our research is the atmosphere and comradery that is present among employees in the office simply cannot be replicated in a remote working environment. Instead, HR teams will see more success from offering a flexible working framework.

“A large proportion of respondents told us working from home made them feel lonely. This has huge ramifications for employee experience and ultimately, the company’s bottom line. If employers do not address issues such as employee engagement, they will soon see standards drop across the board.

“Instead, flexible working puts employees in control over their own hours and work environment, allowing them to tailor their ways of working to their own needs and resulting in increased engagement in the long run.”

So, what if your firm decides to go remote again?

Should companies decide to turn off the lights for a few weeks, they will already have the infrastructure and experience in place to minimise the upheaval of suddenly having the majority of their workers (or, indeed, all of them) working from their spare rooms and kitchen tables again.

At worst, it will cause an inconvenience to full-office return plans. But with the stats consistently showing that employees much prefer a hybrid model over full-time office or full-time remote, any firm putting all their eggs in one basket these days must surely expect some hurdles to arise.

Ultimately, sending your workers back home, at least temporarily, could help ease business financial concerns, which in turn alleviates the concerns of workers who might be stressed about potential redundancies.

However, while the financial concerns of employees might be allayed, HR must also be mindful of the wellbeing impact that WFH can have, particularly at a time when many were just settling back into a somewhat-consistent routine of several days in the office.

Drawing on the experience of remote working from years gone by, HR leaders should be ensuring that managers are checking in regularly with their remote staff, addressing any wellbeing or productivity concerns and being transparent about timescales for heading back to the office.

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