An employer’s guide to returning to the workplace

As part of the UK’s roadmap out of lockdown, there have been suggestions that the work from home guidance may be removed on 21 June, with workplaces able to re-open with no legal limits on mixing.

After so many months of working from home and having adapted all of our routines around this, it’s unlikely to be the case that a flick of the switch will return everything to the way it was pre-pandemic. Everyone will feel differently about the current situation and whilst some may be keen to get back to the workplace, others will be apprehensive. This will especially be the case for staff members that have been on furlough or haven’t been back to the workplace over the last year.

With social distancing perhaps here to stay, businesses will also need to consider how they are going to accommodate social distancing requirements and what any flexible and agile working policies will look like going forward.

Here are some of the things to consider over the coming weeks.

Set your expectations

Notwithstanding the fact that lockdown has been difficult for most of us for many different reasons, the transition out of lockdown may not be as simple or straightforward as we would like.

What you may like to happen as a business owner/director may not be what is reasonably achievable, and it is important to recognise this.

Now is the time to open up and have honest and transparent conversations with employees about how they feel about returning to the office. Gaining this insight will help you identify the most common ways of thinking and allow you to plan how this might be accommodated.

Put mental health first

The toll the pandemic has had on mental health shouldn’t be underestimated, and for some, the mental scars left by Covid may take months if not years to heal. For some, it may take a while to feel properly connected to the workplace again.

Remember that employees may still have health fears or issues around Covid, whilst others may have anxiety around using public transport to get to work or just generally about re-transitioning into a busy workplace.

Where possible, the preferences of each employee should be taken into consideration. It will ultimately be up to you to decide whether allowing different combinations of attending the workplace/working remotely is workable on a long-term basis. If it is agreed that some people will have a hybrid approach to working from home/the office, or else work from the office more permanently, the same options will need to be open to all to avoid any potential claims of discrimination.

Social distancing

Workplaces that do not have adequate space for all employees to return whilst keeping to social distancing will need to make plans for the use of space. Staggered shift patterns may work, or else a rota system where staff split their week working remotely/from the office. It may be that some employees become home workers on a permanent basis. Whatever approach is decided upon, amendments to employee contracts for those concerned may be required.

Other factors to consider include the use of toilets, communal areas, kitchen facilities etc with a view to minimising contact and allowing for adequate distance to be maintained. Any new policies and practices will need to be included in your employee handbook and communicated across all employees.

Don’t rush in

Avoid rushing into sweeping decisions and take the time to consult with employees on how they see the coming months and years. Unfortunately, we don’t know what the future will hold so far as future lockdowns or restrictions are concerned. Inevitably, this will lead to some degree of uncertainty, which can be damaging to morale. However, by taking your time to agree a sensible and workable plan before putting this into place may allow for a greater degree of certainty so far as your employees are concerned.

Maintaining open and regular lines of communication with employees should allow for early warning signs to be identified.  It’s also important to note that employees may feel more comfortable opening up with peers rather than with line managers.  So, encouraging all employees to spot the signs of poor mental health and encouraging staff to share down time with each other in the working day may be good practices to follow.

Although the past year forced many businesses into a scenario that they didn’t foresee or want regarding the physical location of their staff, there may be positives to be drawn. For most businesses, the last 12 months will have shown that a workforce can remain effective outside of a set workplace and it is important to bear this in mind when transitioning out of this lockdown phase.

For further help and advice on this complex area, please do not hesitate to get in touch.