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Normality…what a relief – or is it?

So, it’s all systems go – you’ll soon have the green light to reopen and welcome employees back to the workplace.

As businesses work towards reopening and welcoming employees back to the workplace employers must plan for the return to the workplace in a way that cares for their people and supports health and wellbeing.

Employees and employers alike are likely to have many questions/thoughts about an impending return:

  • Is it safe?
  • I am nervous about returning to the workplace.
  • Should we offer a phased return?
  • Do we need all our workforce back? Can we offer job security?
  • Do I want to go back to work?
  • Can I fit in my work clothes?
  • Can we offer a hybrid approach, balancing remote working and the workplace?

A year down the line from the first lockdown and when home working became the ‘new norm,’ are employees welcoming a return to the workplace or are they happier with no commute, being able to do the school run, wearing casual clothing, waking up later to get to work, saving on fuel and travel costs?

If a return to the workplace is necessary then at the heart of any business plans should be a commitment to support flexible and remote working where possible, and the provision of support for the physical and mental health of workers who are unable to work from home and may be concerned about safety in the workplace.

Returning

In making the decision about returning to the workplace employers could take an individual approach. They could consider the physical, emotional and mental wellbeing of their workforce and continue to monitor government guidance.

During the pandemic people’s expectations around work, their role, and how they balance work and domestic responsibilities may have changed. This is therefore arguably an ideal time for employers to consider more effective ways of working and flexible working practices to meet individuals’ changing expectations.

Employers could consider:

  • Is the workplace safe? Adapting premises to facilitate the return of all staff can be challenging.
  • Is the return essential or could an employee continue to work from home or a mix of the two?
  • Are both employee and employer in agreement with the format of the return?

Safety

There may be fear amongst some employees of the safety in the workplace, particularly if they are vulnerable, have caring responsibilities or have not left the safety of their home for some time.

Coronavirus risk assessments and health and safety measures will need to be in place and be visible for employees. It’s crucial to regularly communicate with staff about the measures you are taking to help reassure them that their health, wellbeing and safety is your top priority.

Will social distancing still be required? If so how will you manage meetings, communal areas etc, will you need to deep clean regularly, can employees share desks and telephones, PPE, COVID testing, will you need staggered work times to limit numbers in the workplace at the same time?

It feels like there are still so many obstacles to overcome.

Reluctance

Employers may encounter understandable reluctance from some employees to return to the workplace.

This can be due to a number of reasons; anxiety about the ongoing health crisis and fear of infection, social isolation due to the lockdown, fear of not being able to do the job anymore, preferring to work at home with proven efficiency in doing so, wishing to reduce the daily commute and having the flexibility to drop off and collect children to and from school.

A re-induction process may be required for returning staff, particularly if they have been on furlough, as key skills and knowledge may have reduced and company policies changed.

Some employees may require a phased return to their full role or may want to discuss a new working arrangement. Organisations should encourage a ‘covid return to work’ one to one return meeting with every employee, with a focus on health, safety and well-being. Managers should have a sensitive and open discussion with employees and discuss any adjustments and/or ongoing support to facilitate an effective return to the workplace.

Utilise your Employee Assistance Programme, if you have one, and ensure staff are aware of the support services available internally and externally to them.

The impact of the pandemic has not been equal across the workforce. Some employees have been furloughed, while others have continued to work (often working additional hours). Employers should be aware that this may lead to negative feelings, hostility and tensions ensuring problems are dealt with swiftly and fairly.

More than ever employers should bear in mind the importance of diversity and inclusion in any decisions or plans made.

Decisions should not have the potential to discriminate against certain groups of employees, for example flexible, home or part time working due to school closures in which women could be disproportionately affected leading to sex discrimination claims.  Organisations should be aiming for an inclusive working environment that takes account of the different experiences people have had during the pandemic.

To conclude, communication with staff and listening to their voice is essential. Keeping people informed about what the business is doing will help individual make their own decisions and give them some degree of control in what are still uncertain times.

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