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Helen Jamieson, CEO at Jaluch

Member Article

Return to the workplace; How and when can businesses get back to ‘normal’?

With vaccinations rolling out across the UK population and the announcement of the government’s 4-step roadmap which outlines an end of social distancing measures by June 21, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel… but the burning question for business owners is:

  • When can I get my employees back in the workplace?

  • Or, if they are already in work but socially distanced or working in bubbles…

  • When can I revert to how we used to work, which is essential for future profitability, productivity etc?

Home working will not be the new norm for everyone, and it does not suit every business.

Many companies, including BP and Facebook, have seen unexpected benefits to homeworking and are now choosing to make a permanent shift towards either part-time or full-time homeworking in their business modelling and financial plans going forward.

However, many organisations that have struggled with government mandated homeworking, finding it to be detrimental to both the business and employees. Whilst homeworking was the right thing to do to ensure employees were protected, there is now an urgency to get back to normal, with some saying they cannot afford to wait until 21 June, or later if waiting for all their staff to be vaccinated.

To sum up the challenges of permanent and full-time home working experienced by organisations forced into home-working:

Technology challenges Unstable connections, lack of telephony or joined up telephony, lack of know how and confidence of staff to tackle tech issues.

Miscommunication or no communication What has often been missing have been the little discussions in passing that help solve issues or that keep the day to day communication flowing. Break down in communications causes frustrations and anger amongst customers and staff alike.

Mistakes and errors It’s so much harder to pick up on errors or little mistakes when a manager or colleague is not able to overhear conversations, see shared paperwork, train up new starters or understand what new starters simply don’t yet know.

Conflict, disputes and day-to-day relationship challenges These have gone unmanaged and unresolved leading to ever greater relationship and team issues, in many cases leading to a breakdown in the fabric of the team which then has numerous knock on effects.

Joined up problem solving Again, when people are remote what we have lost is joined up and complex problem solving that requires the input of lots of people plus time for proper consideration and reflection. Meetings have become too transactional, driving through the agenda as fast as possible which means that side discussions, in depth discussions have all gone to the wall.

Team working, team relationships, respect and understanding These have by and large been lost. Its been too long since we socialised in the works canteen, talked on the way out to the car park, met for drinks after work or even stopped by someone’s desk to say hello. The net result is that relationships and teams have faltered. Often to the detriment of both business and team members.

Where does this leave employers?

The Government Advice is that we should continue to work at home where possible, which has created some uncertainty for employers as the advice is not clear cut and does not apply to all. Here are the two options the Government guidelines offer:

  1. Supporting working from home until lockdown restrictions or social distancing is relaxed.
  2. Facilitating a return to the workplace in line with COVID-secure workplace guidance when working from home is not possible.

This second option may be more the more pragmatic decision, as the longer people are distanced from their place of work, the more difficult it will become to ‘get back to normal’.

We would note though that at this time most employees appear to be of the view that it is their decision alone about whether they work from home or return to the workplace

Most are not clear that a decision about ‘not possible’ is for the organisation to make, albeit in consultation with staff as appropriate.

Be pragmatic and practical

If you are making the decision to bring people back to work, it is recommended that you follow these three key tests beforehand.

1. Is it essential? Employers should engage with their people to understand if returning to the workplace on either a part time or full time basis is essential for productivity, business continuity or other business need or staff wellbeing. If a return is essential, the employer should give clear explanations about the ‘why’, ‘when’ and ‘how’.

Where possible, in keeping with the latest government advice, the employer should continue to support working from home – in the short term while significant health risks and legitimate concerns for safety remain.

Whilst many employers have been able to accommodate working from home in the medium term (some workers have been at home since March 2020) the ongoing damage to the business is not sustainable and the return to work now is essential. If you want to get staff back, start by quantifying the business damage as this will form part of your communication to staff.

2. Is it sufficiently safe? Employers have a duty of care to identify and manage risks to ensure that the workplace is sufficiently safe to return to. This could include reconfiguring workspaces and common areas to allow appropriate social distancing, possible changes to working hours, and increased workplace cleaning and sanitation measures. Even if you did a workplace risk assessment for Covid last year, we recommend you now revisit that with a view to staff returning to the workplace.

3. Have you fully consulted and listened to your staff? Research has found that four in ten people are anxious about returning to work. It’s vital that there is a clear dialogue between employers and employees so concerns can be raised, and individual needs and worries taken into account. To manage some of these issues, there will need to be flexibility on both sides to accommodate different working times or schedules.

Other return to the workplace considerations As long as you demonstrate social distancing, good cleanliness, good ventilation, COVID risk assessments and provide PPE where necessary, you have done as much as is possible to make it safe for your employees.

There are other issues to consider too, like people’s mental health. Anxiety levels have crept up, many will have experienced challenging domestic situations, such as juggling childcare or caring for a vulnerable relative, and financial worries if their family has had a reduction in income.

Many employees won’t want to return (now or in the future) and their reasons will be varied…

We anticipate that employers will receive a mixed response from employees who are being asked to return to the workplace – whether that be now or later in the year. For example:

  • Safety/health concerns
  • Newly formed agoraphobia
  • House moves during lockdown that have taken the employee far away from their place of work
  • Cost Savings
  • Caring responsibilities
  • Looking after dogs (yes, we have heard this!)
  • ‘I don’t agree there is a business need…’

Our advice here would be, start with consultation involving everyone and compile a list of all the challenges, issues and problems that need solving. You need a helicopter view of all of this before you start agreeing things with individual members of your team.

Once you have your list, consider if there is any room for compromise such as flexi home working or temporary/short-term contract changes much as you might consider for a long term sick employee to have a phased return to work.

Understand your ‘red lines’ when it comes to enforcing your contract of employment in respect of place of work and hours of work.

Consider involving your staff representatives or even setting up a staff representative committee (or similar) for the sole purpose of engaging with staff to help crack this nut and get your organisation back on track as quickly as possible.

Just to be clear we are not suggesting that employers should accommodate every request made.

However, remember that employees have a legal right to request flexible working (as long as they have 26 weeks continuous service with the same employer) so you may be faced with more requests of this type and you have a legal obligation to respond (not accept) to them… refusal may lead to grievances… so be aware and be prepared.

In short – we have a long road back to ‘normal’ and there will be bends and bumps along the way

  • Take time to understand the issues before starting to make decisions.
  • Create a clear road map for return.
  • Revisit your H&S COVID risk assessment for the workplace.
  • Communicate continuously with staff. Listen carefully.
  • Don’t bow down to bullies or staff who believe they are in charge. Face the issues and be robust in your managing of them to avoid derailing your whole return to work strategy.
  • Respond to any grievances, flexi working requests or similar issues promptly.
  • Take a consistent approach to issues across the whole business so no team members feel they are getting a worse deal than someone else.
  • Be pragmatic and stay focussed on what the business really needs.

If ever there was a time to be on top of what is going on, manage things promptly, be clear about your ‘red lines’ as an employer, now is the time.

Let’s get prepared. If you offer an employee assistance program, maybe call them and see if they are offering onsite support for workers returning or of, they can provide you with any more info on managing the psychological fallout.

If you don’t have one, why not consider if now is the time to look into this?

If you are facing reluctance or even refusal, this issue will not just go away. As employers, it is key to remember that you do have the right to manage your staff (not the other way round!).

Find a way to manage the issues head on. And in managing such issues be wary of agreeing one thing for your argumentative or difficult employee, but not for another employee who is less vocal. Consistency of management is important. This is not an easy task, but the issues won’t just disappear so if you need support, expert HR support is out there.

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by Helen Jamieson, CEO at Jaluch .

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