Returning to work

Many businesses are returning to work. “Are you still at home or have you gone back to the office yet?” That’s the question we most often seem to be asking and answering when speaking to our clients and others we work with this summer.

For many the pandemic lockdown been a rollercoaster ride – it started on a learning curve as they got used to working at home. Then came appreciation and enjoyment of the flexibility and benefits it can bring.

Now, we’re often hearing that people miss being present with colleagues and the everyday interactions of workplace life.

It could be that rumours of the death of the office have been exaggerated. Many jobs can’t be done remotely, of course, and for those that can, employers have a choice – a full return to the office, continued remote working, or a blend of the two. So what should employers do now?

Safety first

As an employer, your first responsibility is the safety and wellbeing of your staff. Don’t rush a return to work – restrictions may have been lifted, but we’re still in a pandemic that is likely to affect the way you can safely operate for some time to come.

Social distancing, cleaning and hygiene regimes should be your number one priority. A workplace risk assessment is essential before you bring your teams back. What do you need to ensure safety? Screens, hand sanitisers, one-way systems and changed shift patterns may all come into the mix. It may be that to reduce the number of people in a building at one time, asking staff who can work from home to do so for some or all of the time is safe and sensible.

If you’re planning a partial or full return to the workplace, our Back to Work Checklist will help.

Who should come back, and when?

While it may be tempting to bring the whole team back at once, that could be an unnecessary risk.

Spend some time thinking about your employees, their roles and their personal circumstances. Who can continue doing their job remotely without any negative effect on them or the business? Who do you need to be in the workplace if they are to function properly? Who has grown to love working from home, and who is more likely to thrive in a more social environment?

Consider also that people may have health vulnerabilities or be caring for children or elderly relatives. Thinking about it in this way, it’s possible to put people in categories and consider what’s best to meet their needs and those of your business. Be aware that staff may still be concerned about safety and do everything you can to reassure them and communicate the measures they are taking.

What have you learned?

For some, lockdown has been an eye-opener. Many people have used videoconferencing and collaborative software such as Microsoft Teams for the first time. Lots of us will want to travel less frequently.

You may have found that some people or teams have been more productive working flexibly and remotely – so consider whether that should feature in your plans to a lesser or larger extent.

Have working patterns changed? Have people who have been fitting their work round home schooling been happier and more effective outside the normal 9 to 5?

If you’ve learned to value the quality of your team’s output over the hours that they work, then think about how future working arrangements could maintain this change for good. If you have staff who will continue working remotely, our Homeworking: HR Essentials toolkit will be valuable.

Be flexible

Remember that working patterns are not just about what suits the business – they are about what works for people too. Some of your people may feel that their experience in lockdown has proved that working from home is feasible for them, and it may be more difficult for businesses to refuse flexible working requests than it used to be.

Remember that you are required by law to consider flexible working requests and to make a decision within three months. It’s important to be fair, reasonable and above all consistent in accepting and refusing these approaches. Our Flexible Working Requests factsheet will help.

Rebuild the working culture

For those who are back, workplace culture may feel very different than it used to. Your people may be in reduced teams, or working on alternate days or shifts, meaning that the dynamics aren’t the same as they were before lockdown.

Consider what you can safely do with team catchups, social events and team experiences to foster a supportive and social culture. If some people are still working at home, don’t forget to include them somehow – whether that’s through inviting them to a real-world social event or ensuring that you continue to hold catchups online that everyone can attend.

For more information

More guidance on returning to the workplace is included in Reality HR RESET – a free resource designed to help businesses in emerging from lockdown and planning for the future. You can download it here.