Throughout the coronavirus crisis, BOOST&Co has shared content that aims to help businesses navigate the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic. Now, as the UK lockdown begins to ease and something that vaguely resembles “normal” bobs along the horizon, we turn our thoughts to what life might look like when employees return to work.

The power of three

Any decisions regarding the return of employees to the workplace need to take place across a paradigm, where the interests of the government, the business and the individual are all considered equally, according to BOOST&Co’s head of people, Jenefer Morgan.

“The government has already begun to mandate who can go back to work, when that can happen and what a return to work might realistically look like,” she says. “There will be some businesses that consider this the only permission they need, but the interests of their employees are equally important, if not more so. Each business will need to seriously consider the needs of the organisation and its customers, and carefully balance these with the interests and safety of its biggest asset: its employees.”

Everyone will feel differently

Morgan describes the preference for working from home as sitting on a continuum, where some would like to be at home 100% of the time and others would prefer to work in the office 100% of the time. Most of us, she says, are somewhere in the middle.

“There are some individuals who are very comfortable working from home and whose roles are actually suited to it,” she says. “Where there’s a requirement for confidential conversations or the sharing of sensitive information, working in a shared space could actually be counterproductive. For these people, the realisation that working from home full-time is a possibility could make them reluctant to go back to the office.

“At the other end of the scale, there will be those who are desperate to return. While these individuals can work from home, they would very much prefer not to. Everyone else’s preference will fall somewhere in between, so the first challenge for businesses is to establish exactly where their workforce sits on the continuum.”

We will remember

Morgan also highlights the nervousness that some employees could feel about returning to work while Covid-19 is still an issue and the potential backlash for those businesses that do not take these feelings into account.

“We’ve all heard tales of companies being blacklisted for the treatment of their employees during Covid-19 and I think the reaction to how organisations bring employees back to work will be similar,” she says. “Nobody wants to be remembered as the business that brought everyone back too soon and made them ill.”

With this in mind, Morgan has used her People expertise to collate nine top tips for businesses, helping them to navigate the “new normal”– or, as BOOST&Co is calling it, “the best of both worlds.”

1. Make communication a priority

The top priority, in fact, second only to the welfare of your employees. We know that communication pops up in every business advice column, but the emphasis here is on making communication a two-way interaction.

The organisations that will maintain positive relationships with their employees during this process will be the ones that start engaging with their teams early, asking them what they feel comfortable with and what returning to work looks like for them. This can be done via a survey for an initial overview of staff sentiment, via one-to-ones with HR or even by asking managers to approach their teams.

The first step is simply to get the conversation started. After that, organisations need to consider how they will communicate their plans and keep an iterative process open, so they can respond to official guidelines and recommendations as these change.

2. Consider upgrading your resources

The next step, depending on the outcome of these conversations, is to consider the resources and tools your organisation is using and whether these will need to change alongside the working environment.

This might mean investing in better equipment if your decision is to keep teams at home long-term: noise-cancelling headsets, wireless keyboards, laptop stands and even home-working ergonomics could all help to improve productivity. It could mean upgrading software or implementing new collaborative tools, so that teams can continue to work on projects remotely. There is a plethora of programmes out there, so do your research and get feedback from employees on what seems to be working for them.

Communication is key here, too: if your employees are separated by distance, how will you keep in touch? Slack, Skype, Google Hangouts and Zoom are all options for day-to-day communication, but employee management platforms such as Bob offer further assistance in organising remote working, as teams can use them to see who is “in” and who is “out”.

3. Realise that fear is a possibility

At least initially. 

This is something that has been seen across the UK, following the announcement that certain year groups will be returning to school. Some parents are relieved – glad to have their children back in school so that they can return to work – but others are concerned and may be reluctant to allow their children to return. 

Organisations should expect to see similar anxiety around returning to work. Some individuals will be desperate for human interaction and glad to get back, but others could be fearful of the repercussions and the potential to make things worse.

Again, business leaders need to open up the conversation and encourage everyone to look at their individual circumstances. If an employee is also caring for, or is in close contact with, someone who is shielding, then returning to the office may not be the appropriate way forward. Businesses should prepare to be flexible and understanding. 

4. Accept that you will have to make changes

At BOOST&Co, we are very fortunate that our teams are able to work from home, but that will not be the case for everyone. If you need your employees to return, then a more appropriate question to ask is: “What can we do to make our staff feel safe coming back?”

If employees do return to the office, accept that new expectations will need to be met, whether this means increasing the frequency of cleaning, monitoring the quality of circulated air or rearranging furniture and office layouts so that social distancing can be practised. Depending on government guidance, businesses should be prepared to put pressure on landlords to ensure that certain requirements are met.

This might mean that your current offices are no longer suitable, and the ramifications of this are huge. Does your business have the funds to make the changes that are necessary? Or will you need to start looking for somewhere new?

“At BOOST&Co, we have realised that at least two of our offices will not allow for social distancing at normal capacity,” Morgan says. “We are exploring with our people whether we work on a rota, where only half the team is in the office at one time, or whether some team members are happy to continue to work from home for now. We’ve even considered whether offices without windows that open are still appropriate – will employees want to work somewhere where there isn’t a flow of fresh air?”

5. Embrace the opportunity to go greener

For employees who do not live near to work premises, commuting by car or public transport may seem like the only option when they need to do this five days a week. If you are reducing the number of days that employees are required to be in the office, longer commutes by bicycle or on foot may seem more achievable. They also avoid the risk of infection on public transport.

Make the most of the opportunity: get your business registered on the Cycle to Work scheme if it isn’t already, ensure there is adequate (and secure) bike storage and encourage employees to share their walking or cycling routes with colleagues. 

With more teams working remotely, there could also be an opportunity to think about your business’s printing habits. How much printing is done out of preference or habit, rather than necessity? Without easy access to an office printer, it could be a good time to encourage employees to use paperless tools such as DocuSign and PandaDocs to share important information while reducing waste.

6. Prepare to be flexible

Where businesses decide to keep employees working from home, they may also need to consider being more flexible with working hours, to align with when teams actually work best. 

If employees are no longer working together in the office, the rationale of working the same hours also becomes less relevant. Most of us are used to working from 9am to 5pm or thereabouts, but some people are night owls who are most productive late into the evening. Others are early risers who would prefer to wake early and keep their afternoons free. If organisations genuinely intend to work on the premise of getting tasks done when employees are most productive – something that a lot of businesses have had to embrace while staff have been at home with no childcare – then there is a whole realm of considerations to start thinking about.

Do you insist that all meetings take place between 2pm and 5pm, with the rest of the day’s schedule up to the individual? Maybe you implement core hours of 11am until 3pm, with movement on the other hours either side, so that employees can fit work around their lives. Many people have found that working from home has had a positive impact on their family life, exercise and work-life balance, so organisations should be prepared for a desire for this to continue.

7. Allow for a period of adjustment

If employees are off sick for an extended period of time, they will struggle to go from recuperating in bed to operating at 100% productivity overnight, and most businesses ensure that there is support in place for returning workers to ease their way back in. 

We are looking at a similar set of circumstances here. Businesses should be ready to treat the return to work as they would any other period of absence, even if employees have still been working at home. This cannot be a long-term excuse for poor performance, but a period of adjustment should be expected, where employees get used to commuting, office hours and wearing trousers without stretchy waistbands again!

8. Prepare to support employees who feel a sense of loss

Some businesses may decide that it is no longer appropriate or possible to maintain physical offices, but this will be a culture shock for some employees.

“For those of us who consider the physical workspace a key factor when choosing an employer, companies will need to be very persuasive in helping us to understand why that decision has been made – and it will need to be for a better reason than just cost!” Morgan says. 

She explains that some employees may experience a sense of loss in regard to aspects of their employment that they loved. These might include physical offices, but it could also cover business travel, events and general working practices if all these are subject to change, too. For businesses facing tough decisions such as redundancies, employees will also have to come to terms with new, leaner teams and different team dynamics.

9. Finally, accept that some people will want to go

Getting rid of physical offices is a huge change to the unspoken agreement between employee and employer. Just as there will be those who embrace working from home or can accept closures as a necessary decision, there will be some who consider this one change too many, and these individuals may decide to leave. The same can be said for employees who find their businesses returning immediately to the “old ways”, with no allowance for flexibility or preference.

“Something that has really surprised us during the lockdown is the amount of movement from candidates,” Morgan says. “I think people are considering how they have been treated by their employers and there will be some who are reassessing whether their organisation is a place they want to be.”

As we begin to leave lockdown, these feelings will only become more apparent – so if you are not an employer who can hold their head high, safe in the knowledge that you have done your best for both the organisation and your teams, then you have to accept that, sadly, some will want to go.

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