Businesses need to look beyond remote working and think about introducing a wider array of flexible-working options to keep staff happy, healthy and productive at work, new research from Microsoft has concluded.

A survey of over 4,000 UK office workers by Microsoft and YouGov found that more than half (56%) felt they were happier when they were able to work from home. However, this positive attitude towards remote working does not necessarily translate to the work itself.

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Nearly one in three (30%) of those surveyed said they were working more hours while working from home, with 53% saying they felt they had to be available at all times, as well as take fewer breaks (52%).

Microsoft said the findings pointed towards a disconnect between staff sentiments and employer demands, suggesting that staff feel they owe their bosses longer hours in return for being able to work from home.

“The positive impact on happiness caused by being based at home comes at the cost of visibility – meaning staff feel they need to show their worth by putting in a longer shift,” the report said.

At the same time, more employees are seeking out mental health resources as a result of these renewed pressures – though employers are falling short.

Microsoft found that 36% of employees sought mental health and resilience resources, yet only 29% of organizations had introduced additional benefits and resources to support employees’ physical and mental wellbeing.

The survey identified a “large discrepancy” in employer support for physical and mental wellbeing across industries, with employees working in industries that have been most impacted by the public health crisis receiving the least support. For example, of those who said that their organization has introduced additional benefits and resources to support their health and mental wellbeing (29%), fewer than 2% of those were working in medical and health services.

By contrast, the industries investing more in employee health and wellbeing, such as finance and accounting (18%) and IT and telecoms (16%), are the industries where employees feel best supported.

Senior leaders are finding it more difficult to recognize changes of behavior that might indicate an employee needs support while working remotely, the report found.

Atif Hafeez, a CFO in the private equity sector, and quoted in the Microsoft report, said: “Unlike the pre-COVID working environment, we don’t have the luxury of in-person meetings when our teams are working from home. Therefore, we are training our team managers as to how to be more effective under the given circumstances.

“Previously the external counsel was enlisted only when it was specifically needed. Now, we are having to retain the external counsel to support our staff because the need for that is rather regular.”

A lack of human interaction continues to be a problem for remote workers, and Microsoft found that the opportunity for social interaction was a key driver for people’s decision to go into the office when guidelines allow.

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Sixty percent of respondents reported feeling less connected to their colleagues while working from home, with 62% agreeing that they would go into the office to work alongside colleagues when it was safe to do so.

Few companies plan for their workforce to be fully remote in the long-term, Microsoft found. Instead, most plan to adopt a hybrid working model, with the workforce split between working remotely and working in the office.

The report identified four areas of focus for UK organizations as they transitioned towards this model, including ongoing access to development and career conversations for employees; a focus on employee wellbeing; and a broader range of flexible-working options such as job shares, compressed hours and flexible start and finish times.

Work processes should also be concentrated on knowledge-sharing, coordination of work and team relationships, the report said. Senior leaders should, therefore, focus on equipping managers with the skills needed to manage and support remote workers.

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), noted that while large swathes of the workforce were currently working remotely, it was not reflective of “homeworking in normal times”.

Willmott said: “Much of this experience has been enforced homeworking and many people have been dealing with a range of additional pressures and anxieties. It is, therefore, crucial that line managers ensure people are not overworking and provide flexibility and support to anyone struggling with any aspect of working from home.”

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