All through the first year of COVID, HR was warned that the pandemic would change the workplace for good and that we needed to get ready for the so-called ‘New Normal.’

As our seemingly interminable third lockdown eases, we’re about to test the validity of these warnings. At the time of writing, the NHS has given more than 33 million people in the UK their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and the FTSE 100 has broken above 7,000 for the first time since the start of the pandemic. Economists are increasingly confident we’ll see a solid recovery from the global health crisis-induced slump in the second half of the year.

That’s a welcome return to normality. But at the same time, there have been conflicting, if not downright confusing, signals about when or even if we will all soon be working ‘normally’—which in conventional terms for office workers means roughly 8 hours a day, five days a week, in a shared physical space with colleagues. Google has rowed back from its previous position that employees could remotely dial-in for as long as they liked. It now wants everyone back in the office by September. At the same time many of the more conventional City firms say they are happy to move to a hybrid working model.

Along with a growing focus on new hybrid ways of working, there’s been genuine concern over employee wellbeing. We have just published the findings of a major wellbeing survey of employees and managers across the UK, Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands. So, what did we find?

It’s a mixed bag, but one thing is clear: HR will have its work cut out for it for the foreseeable future. More than 33% of UK and Ireland employees said they didn’t believe their employers were concerned for their mental wellbeing. Employee engagement levels were also seriously affected by what we all went through in 2020; only 28% of UK employees described themselves as more engaged, and 37% indicated they were definitely less so. By contrast, 39% of Dutch employees claimed they felt more engaged in 2020 compared to 2019, closely followed by Irish (36%) and German staff (35%). Finally, close to half of the workforce told our pollsters they felt either no more appreciated – or less appreciated – than before COVID; and 22% of UK employees believed they didn’t think their company took their mental wellbeing seriously. 

Among these unsettling findings, we found some room for optimism; 83% of staff we polled felt they handled 2020 and its unprecedented stresses well. And encouragingly, 63% of the UK and 62% of Irish employees believe their organisations do care about their mental health. 

But there’s one finding that I believe deserves particularly close attention. Those working from home – which for many younger team members did not mean a garden office or a conservatory, but literally their beds in a crowded flatshare – are not convinced that employers are tuned in to their concerns as we enter the New Normal.

Why did I draw this conclusion? In our study, 70% of UK managers felt their company had given employees the support they needed to manage the difficulties that confronted them during the past year. So far that sounds pretty good. Furthermore, 66% of UK managers said their teams were getting greater recognition due to the pressure of lockdown. That’s not bad either, given the circumstances. However, ask non-managers the same question, and that figure plummets to 50%. This raises the risk that organisations that only listen to feedback from management may be deceiving themselves that they’re managing employee wellbeing better than is really the case. 

What’s even more concerning is that 50% of UK and 46% of Irish workforces are nervous or even scared about physically returning to their place of work. That could present a real issue for your organisation – and your team – if you’ve decided to get employees back behind their desks as soon as possible.

My take on all of this is that organisations really need to give all their employees a voice – not just the managers. The past year has resulted in one of the biggest shocks to the way that organisations work in recent times. The cultural shifts that this will trigger have not fully played out and it’s not yet possible to say what the lasting impact will be. 

So companies that plan to return to business as usual, without engaging with their workforces properly and understanding how they feel may find this is fraught with problems. Leaders need to tune in to how employees genuinely feel – and give them the tools, flexibility and support they need to manage their way through this ‘re-entry’ phase.

The full survey “Employee Wellbeing in the New Normal – UK & Ireland” is available here 

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