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Edward Manson

The national debate is shifting from how people can effectively work from home to how they will successfully return to the workplace and whether office environments will ever be the same again.

As companies increasingly bring employees back into the workplace over the coming weeks, they will inevitably come under scrutiny around how they put in place measures to ensure staff stay safe and healthy, while protecting their wellbeing.

It is crucial that businesses recognise that their employees have and are continuing to go through a stressful experience following the biggest health crisis in a generation. With this in mind, it is important to reassure employees so that they are confident about returning to work safely.

This comes as little surprise, given that no sooner have people adjusted to a new routine away from the office, complete with laptops and Zoom meetings, there may be an expectation for them to down those tools and return to work.

It would be a mistake for organisations to expect employees to return completely back to normal as soon as lockdown restrictions are lifted. It will be some time before COVID-19 vaccines are available and, in the meantime, employees will be required to work under difficult circumstances, such as adhering to social distancing rules. 

Amid mounting economic turmoil, management teams are increasingly guarded in their outlook. In a survey by PwC just one in five CFOs said they believed their companies could resume “business as usual” within a month if the crisis were to end today.

This means that businesses will have to carefully plan and execute their reintroduction strategies while clearly communicating their intentions to employees throughout the process and asking them to raise any concerns they might have.

Once they have been ascertained, the business should implement a phased approach to returning to work to reduce the threat of a spread of infection. 

Here are the key factors to consider to safely and successfully reintroduce employees back into workplaces.

Understanding behavioural change

It takes 21 days to form a new habit, or so the theory by US surgeon Maxwell Maltz and author of self-help book Psycho Cybernetics goes. This is why companies need to take their time, exercise patience and support employees by offering practical advice to reform habits around post-pandemic physical and mental wellbeing, new office etiquette and how to behave in this new era.

They should also provide guidance around promoting empathy and helping people to understand the thoughts and actions of their colleagues.

Mental health charity MIND has created a helpful toolkit which comprehensively explains how team members can look after and support one another during this time.

HR management

The return of people working from home needs to be managed sensitively from an HR perspective. 

With that in mind, HR teams will have to review and renew policies and procedures across the workplace and for staff according to the new landscape they find themselves in. Firms will subsequently have to navigate and manage various elements, many of which will be uncharted territory for them on account of these unprecedented circumstances. 

For example, they will have to take steps to ensure that current working staff can come back to a safe working environment and are comfortable in doing so. With this will come the implementation of new health and safety guidance in the workplace to ensure best working practices.

Alongside this, those on furlough will need to be kept updated so that they stay motivated and feel valued while having a clear road map as to when they are likely to return and in what capacity. 

As the news unfolds that the Government plans to finish its furlough scheme at the end of October, HR teams need to act now to mitigate the financial impact this might have on the wider business.

Naturally, organisations will lose staff as they aim to meet requirements to restructure and adjust to the changes in the market sector which they are involved in. This may result in some people going through redundancy, while others will see their role evolve, resulting in a reshuffle of duties and responsibilities. 

Less people in a business will likely result in bigger expectations on those left and increasing workloads and some duties that have never been in their remit. It is important to consider how employees might react to this. For example, they might feel like they are being given more work for the same pay, resulting in a drop in morale.

Businesses also need to exercise a flexible working policy, given that the majority of children are not yet back in school and require homeschooling, while some people will still need to self-isolate if they are displaying COVID-19 symptoms. The impact of this on other staff members, who might have to pick up their work in their absence, must be given careful consideration too.

Office redesign

It would be impossible to allow people to all come back to work on day one so companies will have to look at how they logistically do this while still giving staff the option to work from home. 

Employers will need to be mindful of their office design and how it might need to change so that people can maintain two-metre social distancing protocols. This might include the assessment of building access, ensuring there are enough viable points of entry, implementing a one-way system, checking there is sufficient ventilation, managing the flow of people to avoid congregations, revising seating plans, limiting time spent in conference rooms and adjusting sickness policies.

In addition, it makes sense to take temperature checks upon entry into the office, encourage good personal hygiene by providing hand sanitiser and PPE, alongside desk partitions and invest in advanced cleaning services.

If office premises are too small to have the entire team come in on a given day, arrange for people to come in on designated days or try staggering office hours into shifts. This means that workers can either start early and finish early or vice versa, depending on their personal and family needs.

It is worth noting that the Health and Safety Executive has plenty of practical advice available around creating workspaces which adhere to COVID-19 safety measures.

Individual and organisational goals

Many businesses will inevitably have fallen behind on their predicted 2020 forecast which is why financial planning and realigning goals is vital for getting back on track. 

With this in mind, business owners should evaluate and take stock of what they achieved in Q1 and Q2 so that they can ascertain what is realistic to implement over the course of Q3 and Q4. This will help to place them in a strong position come 2021 and whatever that might bring with it.

Once a strategic plan has been made, it should be clearly communicated to all staff members so that they can work towards these goals and be accountable for meeting them.

Upon their return to work, individuals should be offered one-to-one appraisals to help them and the chance to update their personal development plans to reflect on their progress so far in 2020 while clearly mapping out what they rest of the year and beyond has in store for them. 

Training and education requirements should be identified and implemented so that people can do their job to the best of their ability. While social events might be on hold for now, other rewards and incentives should be provided to keep staff motivated. 

It could also be the case that bonus structures need to be reviewed and altered according to what a business is realistically able to offer under these new circumstances. This should be handled and conveyed sensitively so as not to dampen staff morale.

Inspirational leadership

Business related communications such as email updates and newsletters should be more frequently distributed during this return to work period, regardless of size. This is because it is vital that employees fully understand why a certain decision has been made and why. 

It also enables workers to envisage how certain commercial choices impact a company’s brand and culture, while helping them to feel connected to the long-term vision of the business.

Business owners should also lead by example and operate a transparent open door policy, while offering all employees regular one-to-one catch ups.

Good lines of communication mean that businesses can promote the COVID-19 safety measures so that people may protect themselves and others while successfully upholding day-to-day commercial operations.

The post COVID-19 future might currently be unclear, but taking these steps should help your business to effectively navigate any risks to employee health, safety and wellbeing during this period of recovery.

If you would like to speak to a member of our leadership team about your returning to work requirements, please contact us and we will be happy to help: info@merje.com