We are now two months into the lockdown in the UK and employees are adapting to new ways of working. We may be far from what we would have considered to be the ‘normal’ office environment – but employers should be actively planning for the eventual return to the office.

This article will explore the necessary health and safety measures to be considered and  equally as important, the psychological impact of the pandemic upon employees. Furthermore, we explore how companies can support employee’s physical and mental wellbeing during a return to the office.

What measures do you need to put in place to ensure offices are safe?

When the time comes for companies to start bringing employees back to the workplace, it would be a mistake to expect employees to return to normal as soon as lockdown restrictions are lifted.  The stakes are high and this momentous return to the office exercise will not be straight-forward. The process must be carefully considered and handled strategically, otherwise any mistakes could have long term implications upon employee trust, morale, attrition rates and your employer brand.

Health and safety measures may include:

  • Providing appropriate PPE, signage, screens and hygiene products.
  • Not bringing employees back all in one go and taking a staggered approach – think about the roles you absolutely need to have in the office and then plan accordingly.
  • Implementing policies around use of toilets, canteens and kitchens.
  • Continue to allow people to work from home where possible.
  • Stagger core hours for those returning to the office and offer flexibility.
  • Invest in advanced cleaning services; regularly disinfecting desks, keyboards, telephones etc.
  • Temperature checks upon entry into the office.
  • Revise seating plans to abide by the 2 meter rule.
  • Where possible, keep doors open.

Companies also need to have a rapid exit plan and should be prepared for a potential shut-down scenario if employees test positive.  Employees need to be clear about what procedures they should follow if they begin to feel unwell. 

Employee well-being

Whether employees are returning to the office, continuing to work from home, returning to work after being furloughed or a mix of all three, it is important for employers to recognise that these have been incredibly uncertain times for employees. Many will have experienced challenging home situations, such as having to manage childcare, caring for vulnerable relatives or financial worries. Many people will also be dealing with feelings of isolation and anxiety for a number of reasons, but these worries won’t disappear overnight. In fact, they may be heightened when faced with returning to the office…

Employee perceptions of safety are just as important as the actual safety mechanisms you put in place.  So, how do you manage perception of safety to ensure employees feel comfortable returning to the office?

How do you ensure employees feel safe to return to work?

Clear communication about the health and safety measures which are being put into place, and why is essential.  Employees need to be confident that their employer is taking things seriously and placing employee wellbeing as their first priority.

As soon as possible send a company-wide communication about your updated policies and procedures for the return to the office. Even if you do not have any fully formed plans, it is a good idea to let employees know you are proactively managing it. You may also invite employees to provide suggestions for their return to work.

Managers should be encouraged and supported to have one to one meetings with each employee with a focus on employee safety and well-being.  Managers must have a sensitive and open conversation to discuss support or reasonable adjustments individuals feel are needed.  Some employees may require a phased return, want to discuss new working arrangements or have concerns about travelling to work using public transport. It is also likely that some employees will not be able to return to the office and that is something that you need to know as early as possible so that arrangements can be made.

If your business has access to an Employee Assistance Programme or Occupational Health advisors, remind employees of these services.  There are also lots of online resources on well-being from organisations such as Mind .

Particular sensitivity may be needed when reintroducing furloughed employees.  Alongside concerns for their safety, they will have spent a significant amount of time away from their regular work, may feel out of touch and potentially resent the fact they were furloughed.

The workplace which employees are returning to is likely to look very different to the one they left earlier in the year.  Expectations, targets, rules, budgets, office environment and structures will look different which will feel daunting to most, if not all.  It will be vital to have a re-induction process in place for returning employees which should cover topics such as company procedures, business updates and changes, customer updates and changes to their work duties.  

Also, let’s not forget those employees who will continue to work from home.  Managers may find it easier to communicate and engage employees in the office but it is essential that they are encouraged to continue to communicate with those who will not be returning to the office immediately.  Home workers may start to feel even more isolated when seeing colleagues returning to the office and getting back some level of normality. Technology infrastructure must remain in place to continue to support remote working and tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams must continue to be utilised.

This pandemic has affected the workforce in many different ways.  Some employees will have been furloughed while others will have continued to work or even had increased workloads to have to contend with.  Personal circumstances, the challenge of lockdown and anxiety make it even more important to ensure that your company fosters an inclusive working environment.  Managers need to be sensitive to any underlying tensions and feel confident about tackling these immediately.

Jenny Jones

Jenny Jones

Director, ETL Resourcing

Jenny Jones is Director of ETL Resourcing, she has worked in recruitment with various high-profile companies for over 10 years. ETL Resourcing is a dedicated talent acquisition partner for ETL Global partners and many businesses around the UK. If you are interested in developing the recruitment and retention strategies for your business or improving your employer brand, contact Jenny.Jones@etl-uk.com

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