Over the next few weeks and months, millions of people will be returning to the workplace. Many of us will be happy to see colleagues in person again and to hold meetings face-to-face – as well as gossiping in the kitchen.
However, it’s important to face the fact that some people might have concerns about the return to work, so you need to support your employees when they do.
In a recent survey, a quarter of those asked said they would resign from their current job if they were forced to return to the office.
There are a number of actions that business owners and managers can take to reassure their staff who have concerns about returning to the office while the pandemic continues.
Here are eight ways to manage and support your employees effectively as they return to the workplace:
1. Communicate regularly with your employees
You’ll have to listen to your staff more carefully to identify particular concerns they might have about being back in the workplace.
This listening exercise can include surveys but face-to-face conversations work best.
Your team leaders should schedule meetings to discuss this particular issue and make it clear that they’re available for one-to-one conversations as well.
“At the heart of it all, businesses need to regularly ask staff how they are feeling, listen to staff and seek advice and ideas from them,” says Jason Brennan, author and director of leadership and wellness at Wrkit, a wellness consultancy.
“Sharing stories and advice among colleagues will go a long way in boosting morale and helping staff with the continued challenges.
“This could be in the form of regular health surveys to gather timely data to focus on practical interventions, along with structured wellbeing and health support.”
2. Address employee concerns around returning to work
Ensuring that you’re complying with regulations is obviously important for legal reasons. But it also provides a way of reassuring your teams.
Transparency is important here.
Employees can ask to see your risk assessment and for details of the measures that you’re taking to mitigate the risks in the workplace associated with the pandemic, explains Euan Lawrence, Partner in the employment team at Blacks Solicitors.
The Employment Rights Act 1996 provides specific safeguards for employees who don’t feel that they are returning to a safe working environment.
Specifically, there’s protection from being dismissed or subject to any detriment for any employee who reasonably believes circumstances connected with work are harmful or potentially harmful and raises this with the employer.
“Clearly, the key word is ‘reasonably’,” says Lawrence.
“If the employer is rigorously enforcing social distancing, providing for regular cleaning, offering suitable hand sanitation and generally complying with the guidance of Public Health England, it’s unlikely that an employee’s general concerns about returning to work due to the pandemic will be sufficiently ‘reasonable’ to afford him or her the protection of the Act.”
The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) also provides practical advice on preventing the spread of coronavirus as we return to the workplace.
3. Provide additional mental and physical health and wellbeing support
A recent survey by online course provider coursesonline found that 40% of workplaces are yet to implement any new mental health policies in response to the pandemic.
The findings revealed that 90% of those asked would be willing to talk about a mental health concern, which is encouraging.
However, 63% of this group would prefer to talk things through with a friend or family member before doing so with someone at work.
“We may see a rise in burnout and mental health problems, accelerated by the ingrained work from home routines that have been established,” says Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, a neurophysiologist and sleep expert, who specialises in burnout prevention, stress and insomnia.
Burnout has specific characteristics and can include racing thoughts, lethargy, breathlessness, tight or clenched jaw, difficulties in slowing down, talking fast or being increasingly impatient, and working longer hours but less productively, she explains.
Ramlakhan adds: “Make your teams aware of these warning signs to watch out for in themselves and be mindful of seeing these traits in others so that interventions can be made before problems escalate.
“Encourage healthy lifestyle habits, regular breaks during work hours and a supportive environment in which employees feel safe and comfortable discussing their concerns.”
4. Adhere to coronavirus guidelines in the workplace
The government continually updates its guidelines for Covid-safe workplaces and so you should ensure that someone is regularly checking for updates.
As well as social distancing and hand washing, testing is important.
“A responsible testing procedure within your organisation will ensure that you are in control of any spread and give you the confidence and data to operate a Covid-19-free workplace,” explains Simon Checkley, CEO of The Regenerative Clinic.
“It also shows a responsible attitude to your employees and communicates your care for their health.
“You should only use approved tests with results interpreted and acted on in line with government guidance.
“You can test employees for presence of the virus prior to re-entering the workplace as part of an ongoing programme to detect and respond to cases and minimise transmission.”
Your employees will be reassured by the way you treat visitors.
Anyone visiting your premises should be required to wear masks and you can use questionnaires asking them to reveal any contacts or symptoms that they have had.
5. Support your employees if they need to self-isolate
If one of your team has coronavirus symptoms or has tested positive for the virus, if they’re told to self-isolate by a government test and trace service – or if someone in their household has symptoms or has tested positive – then they must leave work and self-isolate or face a possible fine.
The government publishes guidelines for self-isolation. You might want to reassure other employees and even make changes in the workplace following the positive test of a colleague.
Any of your employees who are self-isolating due to coronavirus symptoms, or who fulfil other similar criteria such as living with someone with symptoms, might well be eligible for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP).
But beyond the legal requirements, you can support staff in other ways.
Regular communication is one obvious action – this includes social activities as well as conversations and information solely about work.
Depending on how severe their symptoms are, you can also identify specific tasks that they can do remotely.
6. Offer flexible working
This is so employees can fit their personal lives around their work. It might mean starting early and finishing late, for example, with time off during the day in order to manage home and family commitments.
Many employers see flexible working as an important way of easing their employees back into the workplace and reassuring them about the impact that the return will have on their personal lives.
Research by Hampers, a provider of luxury food and drink hampers in bulk for employees, shows that more than two thirds (68%) of UK businesses are planning a phased return to work.
Of those, three in five (62%) are allowing employees to return as and when they feel comfortable. The remaining 38% are offering workers a rota system to reduce the number of employees on-site at any given time.
A phased return to the workplace with teams and individuals agreeing with managers how and when they’re going to be putting in appearance can soften the impact of a change of working practices, lifestyle and daily routine.
You should be clear on what is expected of your employees and keep arrangements under constant review.
“As we prepare to reopen the office, we asked employees what their preferred working arrangements would be so we could plan accordingly,” says Nic Redfern, UK finance director at NerdWallet, an independent financial comparison website.
“Based on the feedback, we have organised a rota system with most employees splitting their time between the office and home.
“Since the pandemic, we have also hired our first fully remote employees, so we are conscious that we need to give these individuals the support they need, in addition to those we may see regularly in the office.
Ruth Cornish is the co-founder and director of HRi, a professional body for independent HR and people professionals.
She says: “HR will need to ensure there is a clear policy around remote working – whether this be a hybrid model or otherwise.
“Where the job role allows, HR should encourage employers to offer flexibility for their employees to work remotely and/or from the office, for better work-life balance.
“Given the move to more remote working, HR will need to continue to consider whether employees have the right set up and equipment to work safely from home.
“They will also need to conduct risk assessments and home office set up assessments with the team too.”
Where feasible, you can also facilitate phased returns to work for those who have been on furlough for a significant period, suggests Cornish.
She adds: “All of this will depend on how long the employee has been off on furlough or if they have been remote working, what their current situation is and indeed what their motivations are and how these might have changed due to the pandemic.
“An honest and open conversation with the employee is essential to this.”
7. Stay on top of payroll
This is so employees get paid on time and feel secure in the knowledge that money isn’t an issue.
Furlough and other government support can cause confusion so check with your accounting and payroll teams.
Payroll information must now be reported to HMRC on or before payday. Don’t forget that pension contributions made under auto-enrolment must continue and they’ll need to be uploaded to your pension provider so the provider knows what contributions to take.
Automating basic, essential HR functions with cloud HR software will help to speed up processes, keep down costs and avoid the risk of manual inputting mistakes.
8. Continue to access government financial support
This may well be useful to ensure the business finances are healthy. The government has extended the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) until the end of September 2021.
Currently, the state will pay 80% of wages for the hours not worked, up to a cap of £2,500. Employers must pay employer National Insurance Contributions and employer pension contributions.
From July 2021 onwards, you’ll be asked to pay a percentage of their employee wages as the scheme winds down.
These are unprecedented times and returning to the workplace will be exciting but also daunting for many.
It will require new ways of thinking and working.
But planning ahead, checking with legal advice and best HR practice and maintaining constant, open communication with employees should make it a relatively smooth, painless process for all concerned.
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