Returning to the office post-COVID – things to consider

As we move cautiously (but so far, successfully) through the easing of lockdown restrictions, many businesses are now welcoming back employees to their offices and premises.

At the very height of the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020, 47% of employees in the UK were working from home – of which 86% were doing so specifically because of restrictions. For many, this meant a rapid transition on the fly to new processes, ways of working and communicating.

Now we’re out of survival mode and can see some degree of normality at the end of the tunnel, how do you ensure that your employees feel safe and supported returning to the office?

 

The practicalities

Officially, the government advises “working from home where possible” until social distancing is lifted. However, they have given businesses two options within this:

  • Support working from home until lockdown restrictions or social distancing is relaxed
  • Facilitate a return to the workplace which is in line with COVID-secure workplace guidance when working from home is not possible

Before anything else, it’s important for you to understand your responsibilities as an organisation and your obligations under current guidelines. You should check government guidance on things like cleaning, social distancing, PPE and access testing, and ensure you can provide what’s necessary before facilitating a return to the office.

Don’t forget that you can order free lateral flow tests until the 30th June 2021 if you were registered to do so before 12th April to test employees or visitors who are not experiencing symptoms. If you were not able to register, lateral flow tests can be purchased from approved providers.

 

Being flexible

The shift to working from home has been as much a psychological one as a physical one for many organisations and their employees. Many barriers to remote and flexible working policies – such as the unwillingness to support them out of fear of loss of productivity or distrust of staff – have been forcibly removed by necessity.

Outside of the necessity of lockdown restrictions, more flexibility is needed to support more inclusive and diverse workplaces that encourage productivity in a way that suits the needs of everybody in the organisation. 44% of employees currently do not have any flexible working arrangements in their current role.

It’s important to recognise that even as we transition out of lockdown, many restrictions are still in place that could affect your employees’ ability to be present in the office or to adhere to fixed office hours. With self-isolation rules still in place, employees may need to stay away if they have been exposed, or kids may have to take time off school if someone in their class has tested positive. As it stands, there is not a hard and fast line where COVID measures end and normality begins – so it’s vital to stay engaged with your employees around how you can best support them and make them as productive as possible in their role whilst navigating the commitments and challenges of their personal life.

 

Being sensitive

The risks to health from the pandemic are mental as well as physical. Although some of us are itching to get out of lockdown and back to our normal lives, many are also feeling anxious at the prospect of restrictions being lifted – and it’s vital that you understand any concerns and how you can best support them. This may mean continuing to work from home until restrictions have been fully lifted or they feel comfortable and ready to do so. But looking at the broader picture, now is the time to consider your approach to supporting the mental health of your employees.

Last year, 41% of employees experienced mental health symptoms caused or exacerbated by work. In 2020, 63% of employees said that they felt their organisation supported mental health – an increase from 55% in 2019. The pandemic was a wake-up call for many businesses to elevate the importance of mental health and wellbeing on a par with physical health – and it’s vital that we keep that momentum even as we head back into the office.

Now is a great time to review and update your policies and processes around supporting mental health and promoting mental wellbeing. Check out the Mental Health at Work Commitment – you can assess your organisation against their 6 standards for prioritising mental health, and sign yourself up to the commitment to join a network of employers leading the way in implementing these vital standards.

Getting the right balance between practicalities and processes while supporting your people is challenging at the best of times, but all the more tricky as we head into the “next normal”.

 

Talk Staff proudly support businesses in engaging with and understanding their people to create great places to work and high performing teams. We can help you navigate the return to the office and set a solid foundation for the future – whether that’s with reviewing your existing policies or implementing new practices around flexible working and mental health and wellbeing. Get in touch to find out more about how we could help you.

 

For more employer resources around COVID, check out our support hub.

 

Author: Gary Parsons
Gary is MD & Co-Founder at Talk Staff, passionate about the role that people play in helping build long-term and sustainable businesses. He sits on local business advisory boards and has been key in leading the growth of Talk Staff from inception in 2009.
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