Working through the pandemic: a third of businesses admit they got their priorities wrong

Our NerdWallet survey of UK decision-makers explores how priorities shifted during the pandemic, what businesses feel they could have done better, and what work will look like once restrictions are lifted.

Holly Bennett Last updated on 12 July 2021.
Working through the pandemic: a third of businesses admit they got their priorities wrong

The pandemic presented profound and unforeseen challenges to businesses, including a huge shift in the way we work.

Where jobs could be done from home, the technology and support had to be put in place to make that happen fast, minimising disruption wherever possible.

At the same time, creating Covid-safe workplaces meant securing new equipment and making changes to meet health and safety requirements and allow social distancing.

In short, employers had to help keep staff safe, while mitigating the financial impact of a public health crisis that was changing by the day. A tall order, by anyone's standards.

Our survey of almost 1,000 decision-makers in UK businesses reveals how leaders shifted priorities during the pandemic, and what the future of the workplace could look like once restrictions are lifted. Although business leaders weren’t satisfied with how they handled some of these management challenges, there appears to be a commitment to making plans that will help them deal more effectively with similar issues in the future.

Key findings

  • A third (33%) of leaders felt their business had prioritised factors like stability and productivity over the safety of employees. But 59% said they will review how they handled the pandemic to consider what lessons can be learned.
  • Just over a third (34%) aren’t happy about how their business managed staff during the pandemic. Even so, 47% made cuts elsewhere to allow increased spending on employee wellness.
  • 73% of businesses have put contingency plans in place in case future spikes in Covid cases happen.
  • While 46% have made remote working a permanent feature, 45% of leaders expect all staff back in the office once restrictions are lifted.
  • 61% of leaders trust all their colleagues to work efficiently and well from home.

Out of sight? The shift to remote working

For many, working remotely went from an occasional perk to an everyday reality almost overnight, if the job allowed it. Businesses had to act fast to make sure this was possible, and many did, with more than half (53%) investing in software and technology to help make remote working and virtual collaboration happen.

Where offices remained open, 49% of leaders let employees choose how often they worked from home, with 53% allowing greater flexibility in the hours they worked. It was a necessary approach given the demands of homeschooling, self-isolation, and wider caring responsibilities presented during lockdown. This flexibility also helped reduce the risks associated with commuting at peak times, and reduced staff numbers in the workplace to help meet social distancing guidelines.

Trust issues

With colleagues out of sight, the shift to remote working and less in-person contact required a level of trust that may not previously have been part of the company culture. Working relationships had to be fostered online, and engagement, commitment and productivity couldn’t be as easily seen, first-hand.

With more flexible working patterns in place, hours became less fixed. Patchy WiFi meant occasional no-shows for video calls, and amicable sharing of workspaces between couples and housemates was a first for many. Life was far from normal.

Despite this backdrop, our survey found that 61% of leaders trusted all their colleagues to work efficiently and well from home. For large companies (those with 250 or more employees), this increased to 72%, but for micro (2 to 9 employees) and small businesses (10 to 49 employees), that confidence reduced to 54%.

For some managers, the pandemic might have been their first time overseeing a remote team. Support and training may help them build the trust that remote-first companies already take as read. And it is a wider issue, as a company-wide commitment to flexible working usually leads to more effective leadership of remote teams. As remote working is here to stay for many through choice, this may be fundamental to making a success of it.

While only 42% of businesses felt that productivity had improved during the last 12 months of the pandemic, this should be seen in the context of a time of anxiety and uncertainty, with financial worries and bereavement just a few of the difficulties faced by many.

And with some sectors like the hospitality industry hit harder than others through reduced staff numbers and temporary closures, it's a more complex issue than employee efficiency. It’s perhaps unsurprising that just 18% of sole traders felt productivity had improved, with many losing contracts and experiencing reduced income.

Stepping up: employee mental and physical wellbeing

This picture is mostly positive when it comes to employers investing time and money in staff physical and mental wellbeing during the pandemic.

Adapting the workspace

With 43% asking or expecting staff to be based at a designated workplace during the pandemic – potentially for jobs that couldn’t be done from home, or workers who requested it – nearly half (49%) invested in new office equipment like dividing screens to improve health and safety measures and allow social distancing.

Only 29% of businesses took on a larger office space to better facilitate social distancing, and 44% had no plans to. This isn’t perhaps surprising, with many downsizing to cut costs and reflect future flexible working patterns, as well as uncertainty about the future course of the virus.

The impact of moving from dedicated workstations to makeshift desks at home, as well as reduced physical activity during lockdowns and some working longer hours, meant the physical health of employees needed attention. A March 2020 survey by the Institute of Employment Studies found that during the first two weeks of the lockdown alone, musculoskeletal conditions increased significantly, with more than half of people reporting new aches and pains in necks, shoulders and backs.

This risk didn’t go unrecognised, with 42% of businesses spending more on employee physical health during the pandemic, which might include anything from access to occupational health support to supplying equipment like monitors and ergonomic chairs for better posture.

Mental health support

The pandemic caused many to feel isolated and anxious. Between 27 January and 7 March 2021, around one in five people aged 16 and over experienced depression, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). That’s more than double the rate before the pandemic.

With stress-related sickness absence on the rise, and mental health absence already the most common cause of long-term sickness absence in UK workplaces, offering support has never been more important. So it’s encouraging that more than half (53%) of leaders said they’d allocated enough money to support the mental wellbeing of employees during the pandemic.

When it comes to communication, 65% felt that leaders in the business had enough contact with people online or face-to-face, and 41% had scheduled more frequent one to ones with employees.

Mistakes made and lessons learned

Perhaps the starkest admission was that 33% of leaders felt their business had prioritised factors like financial stability and productivity over the safety of employees.

This doesn’t necessarily mean social distancing rules were flouted, or risk assessments weren’t updated; maybe they just felt they could have done more. And with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see what we’d do differently, with all the facts at hand.

Even so, it’s an employer’s duty to help protect employees from harm and make the workplace Covid-secure, and reassure staff that this is the case, so it’s concerning that a third think they’ve fallen short of that.

Though 40% mandated regular rapid lateral flow testing for staff, 30% didn’t. Even so, 30% plan to introduce it, perhaps once more staff return to work premises. The government recommends employers regularly test staff to help reduce the risk of transmission and help instil confidence that safety measures are in place. This will likely need to continue well beyond the date restrictions are lifted.

Employers faced a number of tough challenges and choices during the pandemic. So while the health and safety of employees should be top of the list, it might not be a surprise that some struggled to get it right.

Nic Redfern, financial director at NerdWallet, says: “Businesses have been forced to make many difficult decisions over the past 18 months. And evidently, staff welfare has not always been the main priority within the decision-making process.”

Reflecting on other business priorities, a third (34%) of leaders weren’t happy with how staff were managed throughout the pandemic, perhaps again reflecting difficulties felt by managers unfamiliar with leading remote teams. But the intention to learn from this was shown by three in five (59%) businesses saying they will conduct a review of how they handled the pandemic. This will need to take into account the immense pressures managers faced during the pandemic, including working longer hours, making difficult decisions that would affect colleagues’ lives, and feeling responsible for employee wellbeing.

There was recognition for the need for advance planning and budgeting. Half (50%) of businesses have set aside more money in an emergency fund to help prevent disruption if further Covid-19 spikes happen, and 73% have put contingency plans in place to prepare for possible future lockdowns.

Nic Redfern adds: “It is clear that many business leaders are frustrated and dissatisfied with the way their company has handled the pandemic. It is a reflection of just how challenging it has been for decision-makers as they have attempted to balance the security or survival of the business with the health, safety and wellbeing of employees.

“Clearly, the right balance has not always been struck. But it is positive to see that the majority of businesses will review their handling of the Covid-19 crisis to assess what they can learn from it.”

The future’s hybrid, but not for everyone

Has the pandemic been a catalyst for change in the way we work, or will previously established working practices return once restrictions are lifted?

Some of the UK’s biggest companies say they won’t ask employees to go back to the office full time. Since the start of the pandemic, 46% of businesses we asked said remote working will be a permanent feature for their business, with 26% planning to transition to it in the future.

Even so, 45% of leaders say they expect all staff back in the office once restrictions are lifted. While this figure seems relatively high amid talk of offices being old news, converting to a remote approach isn’t possible for all sectors and types of work, and provision should be made for people who can’t, or just don’t want to, work from home. It’s encouraging that 47% of businesses created dialogue by running an in-depth consultation with employees to discuss the future of remote or office-based working.

The approach will vary by sector, and pressure to return to cities to kickstart the economic recovery may have an impact, but a likely outcome for many will be somewhere in-between, with hybrid working. This allows the choice and flexibility people are asking for, to achieve the work-life balance they want, if it’s feasible for the business too.

In turn, offices are likely to become less about rows of fixed desks and more about flexible spaces built around collaborative working, with safety and hygiene measures, including better ventilation and improved handwashing facilities, built in.

Working life after lockdown

With coronavirus restrictions due to end in England on 19 July, commuting on public transport and returning to workplaces without masks and social distancing may cause some worry and anxiety.

Access to mental health support will remain important for anyone concerned about going back to the office, or who experienced trauma or stress during the pandemic. Regular check-ins and activities to help employees stay connected, wherever they’re based, will also play a part.

Nic Redfern says: “What working patterns will look like should become clearer in the coming months, as the widespread adoption of more flexible ways of working become embedded. Whatever the picture, as workplaces open up again and we learn to live with the virus, employee wellbeing will need to stay front of mind.”

Tips for businesses beyond the pandemic

If you’re looking to create a more robust plan to help boost future resilience and support the health and wellbeing of employees, these three tips might be a good place to start.

Implement scenario planning

While we clearly can’t always predict what lies ahead, it is possible to consider potential future disruptions, or plausible uncertainties, your business might face, the impact these might have, and your response to them, as part of a wider business plan. The importance of contingency planning was recognised in our survey, as 82% of large businesses put new plans in place in the event of similar major disruption happening again.

Build a strong workforce communication plan

A well-considered internal communications plan can help maintain staff wellbeing and morale and boost engagement, whether employees are working from home or in the workplace. Share the same communications with remote workers and office workers, so everyone feels included.

Ask people what they need directly or through employee surveys that you follow up on, and have regular check-ins through individual and team calls. Allow time during meetings for questions and concerns, and make conversations two-way, so everyone feels visible and heard. Encourage informal chats about non-work topics sometimes too, as this can help reduce feelings of isolation and make work a better place to be.

Continue remote worker support

As employers continue to embrace flexible ways of working, support for staff who work from home some or all of the time, and training for managers who may be new to leading a remote team, will need to stay a priority.

Make sure remote workers have the tools, equipment and facilities they need to work from home safely, and a dedicated working space. Their hours of work and your expectations for keeping in touch should be clear, but encourage screen breaks and knowing when to shut the laptop at the end of the day, to help avoid blurred boundaries between home and work, and potential burnout.

As obvious as it might sound, offer in-house and remote staff the same opportunities for training, progression and promotion. An ONS survey found that employees who worked from home most of the time were less than half as likely to be promoted than all other employees, and were also less likely to have received a bonus.

About the survey: The research was carried out between 8 June and 14 June 2021 by independent market research agency Opinium, with 989 UK adults participating in an online survey.

Image source: Getty Images

About the author:

Holly champions clear, jargon-free writing. She’s been creating finance content for leading organisations for over 10 years. Read more

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