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Lockdown restrictions easing: How employers can prepare for a return to the workplace

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Many UK employers face complex challenges as lockdown restrictions ease and their employees start returning to the workplace.

As the governments in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland lift their remaining restrictions across varying timetables, employers still have a lot to do and consider.

In addition is the need to look after the health and wellbeing of their workers, and in some cases change structures to allow for more working from home.

It may seem daunting at first.

But if you plan carefully, you can ensure a smooth return and even use the changes to support strategic improvements and the long-term health of your company.

In this article, we highlight what you need to consider and plan for as you and your employees prepare to return to the workplace.

Here’s what the article covers:

Return to work measures

The rise of hybrid and flexible schemes

Planning hybrid schemes

What to include in your hybrid working plan

Practical changes for flexible working

Maintaining productivity with home working

Final thoughts: Plan early to gain an edge

Health measures may include altering workplaces to ensure they are well ventilated, providing regular coronavirus testing and temperature checks, and lessening contact by reducing and shortening meetings and staggering shifts.

Communication will also be crucial.

Some of your employees may be anxious about returning to the workplace. They could have concerns around numerous areas such as working safely, adopting new ways of working and potential redundancies.

So provide reassurance and communicate your financial position and plans whenever possible.

You may also wish to support employees further by, for example:

  • Checking their wellbeing
  • Finding out how staff are feeling by asking them directly or through surveys and forums
  • Consulting on changes
  • Managing any concerns.

You should make your plans as flexible as possible, given the potential for further changes to lockdown restrictions.

Many employers say technology, including cloud HR software, has been crucial in helping them stay flexible and overcoming communication and coordination challenges during the pandemic.

This software should also help as workers return by managing staff schedules in multiple locations, planning your approach to hot desking (if you have that in place), and providing an instant and easily accessible hub for regular information and support.

Some systems may also help HR professionals identify and monitor vulnerable employees and give them rapid assistance, for example, with practical, financial and mental health challenges.

The relative success of working from home (WFH) has been a positive from the pandemic and, as lockdown restrictions ease, many employers are looking to enable more WFH.

A survey by Boston Global Consulting (BCG) showed that, before the pandemic, 31% of people worked from home. During it, 51% did so.

But in the future, a huge 89% of people globally said they would prefer a job that allows them to work from home at least some of the time.

Different studies from the UK’s YouGov and Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) show a similar picture with most workers wanting to continue with some WFH.

According to BGC, at least 82% of those who shifted to working remotely feel trusted by their employer and 86% reported positive benefits, such as fewer distractions, better work-life balance and improved collaboration.

However, 79% experienced negative impacts, including anxiety, loneliness and blurred boundaries between home and work.

Employers also see challenges in WFH.

The biggest is the unsuitability of some jobs to homeworking. Others cited difficulties with management, employee wellbeing, staff interaction and cooperation, and performance-related issues, such as monitoring.

Only 23% of companies expect their workforce to be at home all the time after the pandemic.

Over half of employees (53%) view hybrid working – in which employees work some time in the workplace and some at home – as the best model, and prefer an equal split between the two.

Many employers want flexible, hybrid schemes too, not least to help them reduce office space.

The percentage of employers who said more than half their workforce worked regularly at home was 15% before the pandemic – but 40% expecting this level of WFH after it.

Hybrid and flexible working schemes can work in many ways, depending on your business and employees’ needs.

You could encourage your employees to come to the office one or two days a week so they still feel part of the company, or you could mandate a minimum amount of office time in their contract.

Alternatively, they could only come in when necessary, for example, for important meetings, training and inductions.

Another important goal is to help employees avoid feelings of loneliness or isolation, so you may want to factor in ways for them to interact and socialise with their colleagues.

Don’t forget, some employees may not want to work from home. So, where possible, give them the option to come in more frequently.

For those who have difficulties with WFH – perhaps because they don’t have enough space or have caring responsibilities to manage – consider how measures such as extra support, flexible hours or better equipment might help.

Few companies have experience of this way of working, but surprisingly very few have started planning how they will do it, according to the CIPD.

WFH helped employees muddle through during the pandemic.

But what do you want your new hybrid model to achieve for your company and its employees long-term? What part can it play in your overall strategy?

Can you design it carefully enough to meet these goals while avoiding unintended consequences?

For example, is your priority saving money, improving productivity, or boosting morale and retention?

How can your hybrid scheme contribute to your environmental, social and governance goals, for example, by helping reduce carbon footprint?

According to an article by consultant Innosight, you should start your hybrid working plan with a clean sheet, unencumbered by the way you did things before.

Consider what technologies you will need to make your system workable, including HR, collaboration, creativity, and productivity tools.

What other resources, policies, practices and processes will your hybrid system need to function and thrive?

These might include HR considerations such as travel, talent development and compensation; operational issues such as office design and logistical challenges; or how you will manage hot desking.

According to the CIPD, many employers (44%) are planning additional measures or increased investment to enable greater home working.

Technical changes involve ensuring technologies are up to date (59%) and increasing the laptops and computers available (51%).

Employment-related actions include changing organisational policies (66%), more training for line managers in how to manage staff WFH (46%), and adapting performance management systems (33%).

Policy considerations include whether you will increase other flexible arrangements such as flexing hours, for example, to help families WFH manage their day.

If someone has been ill, or faces other personal difficulties, will you allow them to move roles, go part time or job share?

How will you handle requests for more or less WFH or other flexible arrangements – for example, will there be a formal process or will it be ad hoc? Will your contracts require a minimum number of days in the workplace?

The CIPD said one employer who did have a plan for post-pandemic working surveyed staff to explore attitudes to WFH and find out how they can best facilitate the shift. Another was looking at replacing their permanent premises with pop-up offices.

Even if productivity is not your top priority, you should ensure it doesn’t drop off as employees switch to the new structure.

CIPD analysis suggests that people-related factors affect WFH productivity more than technological issues.

Employers who identified challenges with job suitability, staff coordination, line management, monitoring, and staff motivation tended to report reduced productivity.

Those who reported improved work-life balance, greater focus, and enhanced coordination and staff motivation reported higher productivity.

In contrast, IT-related challenges had no or weak associations with productivity.

The easing of lockdown restrictions across the UK will be a huge transition for many companies.

How you cope with this pivot could affect the health and wellbeing of your employees, productivity and strategic edge of your company for many years to come.

Planning carefully and enabling the changes with the right tools and resources could make all the difference to the long-term health of the business.

Editor’s note: This article was first published in April 2021 and has been updated for relevance.

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