Returning to the Workplace Post Covid

Fiona MacKenzie

Monday, 19th July 2021 signalled that the return to work will increasingly be at the employer’s discretion. 

It’s vital that organisations consider the physical safety and mental wellbeing of their people before returning them to the existing workplace. They should first consider if they can meet three conditions: is it essential for them to be in the workplace to do their job; is it sufficiently safe; and is it mutually agreed with workers?

We have a long road ahead to get the UK back to work, but by engaging with staff and taking the time to think through workplace protections, businesses will be in a much better position to bring people back at the right time and in the right way. For example:

  • cutting office/meeting room capacity to allow easier social distancing.
  • limiting external visitors
  • enhanced office cleaning and hand hygiene availability
  • mini staff inductions to inform returners about workplace changes and expectations
  • hot desking: a hot desking return to work could actually be one of the safest if undertaken correctly. Keep employees distant and separated. Clean workspaces thoroughly (protocol, supplies, cleaning time). Create a system for track and trace (sign in/out sheets).

Many workers are anxious about returning to their normal place of work for a variety of reasons including:  

  • Feeling that their employer is putting pressure on them to do so. 
  • Dissatisfied with the health and safety measures put in place by their employer.  
  • Individual feelings around vulnerability.     
  • Anxiety around commuting.
  • Lack of information from and consultation by their employer.    

A key message for organisations as they plan for a potential return, therefore, is to approach the process in a holistic and systematic way. For example, make a good start by following the HSE’s COVID-19 risk assessment framework

To support official government guidance, and to ensure that businesses are making decisions that are relevant for their specific workplace and workforce needs, the *CIPD has set out five guiding principles for businesses planning the return to the workplace: 

  1. Know your business: There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach – businesses will need to build on government guidance with a response that is specific to their sector, size, business need, environment and people. 
  2. Put people first: Employers must put their people’s health and well-being first, protecting them from risk of infection at work and reducing their risk of exposure when travelling to and from work. Employees need assurance they will be working in a safe and supportive environment that supports physical and mental well-being, given that the risk of Coronavirus is ongoing.  
  3. Be Flexible: Businesses will need to adjust working practices to protect employees’ safety and mental well-being. This will mean keeping people working from home where possible then phasing people back into the workplace gradually, staggering working hours and when people are travelling to work. Businesses may also need to reconfigure workstations and common shared spaces to enable social distancing and effective cleaning. 
  4. Be inclusive: Organisations need to balance fairness and consistency with flexibility to address individuals’ health concerns, given that people will have experienced the crisis in different ways. Line managers will need to be supported to help people transition back into work in a way that recognises their personal challenges and concerns and helps them feel safe. 
  5. Be open: Individuals need to be confident that they can raise their concerns and needs about returning to the workplace without judgement. They need to know their concerns will be fairly considered by their line manager and employer and that they will be actively involved in decisions about coming back into work. The return to work must be a two-way conversation between an employer and individuals. 

The role of line managers in supporting a return to the workplace is pivotal. Where people have been working continually from home for over a year, in many cases they will be the crucial (and sometimes only) link between the organisation and the individual. 

Managers should be encouraged to have a one-to-one return conversation with every employee, where a key focus is on health, safety and wellbeing. This should provide the forum for a sensitive and open discussion about any worries or concerns someone may have, and any support needed for an effective return to the workplace. This is especially important for some groups of employees, such as those who have been furloughed, or who have joined the organisation during the past year. 

Strict adherence to official Government advice in terms of people’s health and safety is a given, but beyond that, there is scope to develop a new vision for the organisation.  Going forward, the experiences of the past year have offered us an opportunity to embrace ways of working that more closely meet people’s circumstances and choices.

Where a return to the workplace is necessary and/or desirable for both organisation and individual, at the heart of any plans should be a commitment to support flexible working (e.g. start times/working hours) where possible. This approach has the potential to enhance the quality of working lives for many people, while simultaneously improving organisational performance.

*Source: CIPD