Since the UK went into nationwide lockdown on 23 March a lot has changed - from the way we socialise to the way we work. Slowly, we are developing a ‘new normal’, with sectors opening up and more people returning to working environments. But what will it be like for the millions of people venturing out of their homes and back to their regular workplace for the first time in months?
We sought the thoughts and advice of HR professionals on what employers can do to make the transition easier.
1) What steps can employers take to help protect staff?
With 48 per cent of organisations not set up to allow their staff to work from home, it’s important that more are prepared for the return to work. Nick Gallimore, Head of Talent at Advanced and Erin Taheny, Head of HR & Operations at Tiger Recruitment, give some tips on how companies can reassure staff about their safety, and prepare for their return to the workplace.
“Obviously health and safety is the key priority, and our offices will look very different – at least for the next few months. It will affect our ability to maximise use of space, and most businesses will need to limit the number of staff present each day so that appropriate social distancing can be ensured. We can expect much more cleaning, no hot-desking and a change to the way we use physical meeting space, because the way we used to work simply isn’t safe at the moment. Many of the interim steps businesses have taken, for example increased use of video conferencing, will most likely become permanent features of our working lives.” - Nick Gallimore
“There are some fundamentals that businesses need to have in place to keep employees physically safe and reassure them. This includes having masks and hand sanitisers for employees to use. Offices should be deep-cleaned, and businesses should consider how to make the best use of their space whilst adhering to the social distancing rules. In our own business, we’re considering an alternating shift-type pattern, which would allow us to space out and have fewer people in the office at one time.
Beyond the ‘basics’, by surveying your staff you can gauge how they are feeling and tailor your return-to-work plan to their needs and concerns. For example, in our own staff survey, commuting was highlighted as a major issue. So, we’ve signed up to the cycle-to-work scheme. We’ll also offer our employees more flexible hours, which will be agreed in advance, so that people can travel in off-peak times if cycling or walking isn’t an option for them.” - Erin Taheny
2) How can we support the mental wellbeing needs of our staff?
Over two-thirds of adults (69 per cent) admitted they were very, or somewhat worried about the effect that Covid-19 was having on their life. It is essential that organisations ensure their employees’ mental wellbeing needs are met on their return to work. Nick Gallimore and Kate Palmer, Associate Director of Advisory at Peninsula, give advice on how employers can help to support their people.
“What’s important is transparency and providing an element of choice. We’ve learned, through the regular pulse surveys we’ve done at Advanced, that many people are worried, and they are worried about different things. Some people miss the social interaction and would really like to return to work, some are shielding or feel vulnerable, others are concerned about their long-term prospects or anxious about how to continue supporting family members.
Being open with our teams about our planning and enabling them to have a say about how we return to work, are essential, because we are all faced with different challenges.” - Nick Gallimore
“Employers should be sensitive to signs that employees may be struggling with their mental wellbeing, and know how to approach the situation without causing embarrassment. Some people suffering from mental health issues are reluctant to share this with their employer or colleagues, so creating a safe space for these conversations could help to promote confidence.
Mental health issues should also be considered in risk assessments, as employers are legally required to safeguard their employees under the Health and Safety at Work Act. This extends to safeguarding their mental health, and will cover aspects such as taking action to prevent workplace stress. Some people with ongoing mental health issues are also classed as having a disability and are therefore protected by the Equality Act.” - Kate Palmer
3) What is the best approach to communicate the return to work to employees?
Working life has been greatly disrupted, with people having to adapt quickly and efficiently to work from home and 24 per cent of people have admitted to finding this difficult. Although 41 per cent of people are currently still working from home, many are now returning to the office. Therefore, employers need to communicate clearly to ensure staff understand what is happening and when. Nick Gallimore shares his thoughts.
“During the lockdown period, we have significantly increased the volume of communication to our employees. Our CEO himself has conducted a weekly briefing, and the rest of our leadership team have been very visible in sharing updates and plans in a transparent manner. We’ve been open at all points, and have taken steps to ensure that our communication is frequent and happens at pace. This is continuing as we start the journey back into the office, and our teams have reacted really positively to this level and volume of information.” - Nick Gallimore
4) How can employers help / reassure staff who are uncomfortable returning to work?
Although the government announced in June that more sectors will be opening back up, some people may still feel uncomfortable about returning to work. Only 41 per cent of people said they felt safe or very safe outside of their home. Here, Nick Gallimore and Erin Taheny share their advice on how to approach this issue.
“Again, it’s about honest and open communication, particularly around when we anticipate things will change, and when we can allow and then expect people to come back to the office. This should be a two-way conversation, we’ve enabled our teams to tell us whether they are uncomfortable, and have used this information to think about how and when we return.” - Nick Gallimore
“Providing people with a safe environment and a detailed risk assessment should help reassure them that you’ve taken the necessary precautions. The risk assessment should cover all of the potential hazards that Covid-19 presents for your business, and outline the steps you are taking to mitigate those risks – everything from how often the office will be cleaned to how you’ll be encouraging hygiene best practice. I also recommend sending employees any risk assessments from your landlord or building management company. This will give them confidence that all of the communal areas will also be safe, ready for their return.” - Erin Taheny
5) Company culture, what is the ‘new normal’?
Although restrictions are starting to ease, life will not be how it was pre-Covid-19 for some time. Nick Gallimore, Kate Palmer, Heather Beach, Director of The Healthy Work Company and Erin Taheny all give their opinions on what the ‘new normal’ may look like.
“I believe that businesses will have learned some important lessons around collaboration and transparency. We’ve seen that physical location is less important, and that productive collaboration can happen from different places. Family and work can, and should, be able to co-exist, and most importantly we’ve learned that what’s key is output and results. I think we may well look back on this period in a few years and be grateful for some of these lessons, as our organisations become more open-minded, flexible and willing to accept and support the needs of the individual, provided we are getting the right results.” - Nick Gallimore
“As businesses start to reopen, talks of a second wave will likely dominate conversations across the country for some time. Organisations will need to constantly be aware and factor in the possibility that a sudden rise in infection rates could threaten their business once more.
To help tackle this, employers can consider the following provisions:
- avoid face-to-face seating arrangements in the office by changing office layouts
- encourage staff to work from home as much as possible on an ongoing basis, or change shift patterns to reduce the number of staff on duty at any given time
- make virtual communications a regular means of conducting training or meetings
- put in place rules for managing social spaces / communal areas.”
- Kate Palmer
“This is the million-dollar question. We face a future in which people may be in the office considerably less than before. How do we maintain casual communication like the corridor chat? How do we manage meetings with half the staff not there? It may be that offices become destinations for training, town halls and team building. This could be an opportunity to really look at things like, who needs to be in each meeting? We can't spend our days on Zoom without getting exhausted. There is an opportunity to be grasped here, in which managers trust employees to produce without monitoring their hours. This could be the beginning of a newer, healthier work culture. We will no doubt go through some pain first though, and we know that companies are trialling and experimenting.” - Heather Beach
“It’s difficult to know what the ‘new normal’ will be. Suffice to say, it’s going to take some time for workplace culture to return to how it was before – if indeed it ever does. Until then, the challenge is going to be how to provide some of the buzz and interaction of office life that many people thrive on – while still observing social distancing. In our own business, we’re looking at how we can split the shifts and the alternating days, so that we get the right balance of personalities and people - not only to get the work done, but also to keep up morale.” - Erin Taheny
Advanced provide Cloud HR software so you can better support your employees’ needs - both now and in the future.
Nick Gallimore, Head of Talent at Advanced
Erin Taheny, Head of HR & Operations at Tiger Recruitment
Kate Palmer, Associate Director of Advisory at Peninsula
Heather Beach, Director of The Healthy Work Company