Work

Open for business: making a success of a returning workforce during COVID-19

COVID-19 has brought around a series of “new normals.” In fact, the term has almost become a metaphor for uncomfortable adaptations. The latest new normal is the re-opening or partial re-opening of many businesses across the UK. This is a milestone that many have anticipated with eagerness as a potential beacon of hope and a return to the way things were.

The fact of the matter is that normality won’t ever quite resume. The advent of returning workforces has actually posed a number of organisational, compliance and cultural challenges to businesses of different sizes and sectors across the UK. Given that a poll by IPSOS Mori revealed that UK workers were “uncomfortable” about returning to their previous way of life as far back as May, the more recent turbulence around local lockdowns and the endless round of tightened and loosened restrictions will have only served to fuel further anxiety about being in the workplace.

How can you, as an employer, get the most of your team, whether remote, in the office or a combination of the two? Is it possible to meet their professional and emotional needs, whilst ensuring productivity and a positive culture?

Employee concerns of returning to work during COVID-19


The various concerns of employees fall into distinct camps: those who have been working throughout COVID-19 and are feeling burnt out; and those who have been furloughed, with all of the feelings of uncertainty and isolation that this has brought.

Your team members, who’ve remained fully employed throughout the pandemic, have had to adjust rapidly to changes in their job role, team structure and working environment, all whilst managing their own personal response to wider news unfolding around the pandemic. Your team most probably started to get used to working remotely, only to be asked if they would consider at least a partial return to the workplace. They’ve had to roll with some punches, and it’s likely that the prospect of them returning to the workplace is either:

  • Well received, because it signals a more defined work and home life, pointing towards the business getting back onto it’s feet; or 

  • Not well received, since working from home has proven to be professionally effective and there is too much uncertainty around how to mitigate risk in the workplace.

Potentially, they have mixed feelings and need reassurance.

Team members who have been furloughed may well have been spared the pressure of mounting workloads to be delivered by fewer team members, but their challenge, in many cases, has been an abyss of silence juxtaposed to anxieties over job security and professional prospects. That’s not to criticise employers; responding quickly to ensure, or work towards, business survival throughout the pandemic is no mean. feat and some things simply haven’t been able to be prioritised. For many organisations, keeping in touch with furloughed members of the team has been one of those things that has fallen by the wayside.
Potentially, they have mixed feelings and need reassurance.

Team members who have been furloughed may well have been spared the pressure of mounting workloads to be delivered by fewer team members, but their challenge, in many cases, has been an abyss of silence juxtaposed to anxieties over job security and professional prospects. That’s not to criticise employers; responding quickly to ensure, or work towards, business survival throughout the pandemic is no mean. feat and some things simply haven’t been able to be prioritised. For many organisations, keeping in touch with furloughed members of the team has been one of those things that has fallen by the wayside.

Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Nick Grey (NHS Foundation Trust Sussex) explains that whilst we may have a good understanding of anxiety, understanding its impact in such unprecedented times is not a given. With every individual sitting somewhere slightly different on their own “continuum” of risk, the emotion that a return to the workplace can solicit in one employee can vary wildly to the next. As the BBC reported, individual circumstances can bring relief and anxiety around the prospect of a “hard” return to work.

Doing enough versus doing the right things


There are so many ways you could work to smoothly return your team back to the office: split shifts, work “bubbles,” job shares, an office restructure, incentives… the list is endless. But what’s going to have the most impact?

We know just how stressed bosses have been over COVID-19: our recent report into mental wellbeing in the workplace found that since the advent of the pandemic, 481 of the 1,003 employers that we surveyed had suffered with deteriorating mental wellbeing, 92 of whom were experiencing this phenomenon for the first time in their lives. So, to be kind to yourself, your business and your employees, we suggest addressing root causes rather than symptoms when it comes to effectively returning people to work. Understanding why employees might feel disgruntled, agitated or concerned will allow you to pick and choose which approaches to deploy to ease the transition back to the office. In the mid to long term, it will save you time and money.

Based on our own health and wellbeing strategy at Benenden Health, we believe that employers need to look beyond ticking off their to-do list when it comes to getting the team back into the workplace. Insight magazine reports a rise in mental health crises amongst workers, citing NHS professionals who forewarn of “dire” risks to employers and the economy as their occupational health services would be overwhelmed if problems were left unmitigated. You can redress this balance. By making mental health and wellbeing a priority, you will catch and assist those who are not coping well with change.

A return to work interview would be a great idea for all employees, whether coming back off furlough or simply readjusting to where they carry out their duties. Consider the benefit of a healthcare provider, who can activate benefits such as counselling helplines, wellness training and physical health provision quickly, cost effectively and with minimum disruption to your own day-to-day as you steer your business towards more certain times. It’s not a case of actions speaking louder than words: in this situation, both need to be present in equal measures.

Where to start with returning to work during COVID-19


The CIPD has urged a measured approach to a return work, encouraging employers to pose these questions to themselves:

  • Is returning to the workplace essential?

  • Is it sufficiently safe to do so?

  • Is it mutually agreed with the worker?


 These three questions encourage some self-reflection and in many ways, will enable you to have an honest conversation with yourself about what has been successful with remote and flexible patterns of working. Some employers are considering a four-day week, for example, once the furlough scheme formally comes to an end, as a way of incentivising staff whilst keeping payroll costs a little leaner.

When it comes to safety, you need to weigh up the cost of productivity against having people in the office. Will their presence be conducive to more work or, conversely, will anxieties around COVID-19 exposure make them less industrious? Is there perhaps a middle way? An approach to consider would be to maintain flexibility for the time being, whilst tightening up your “COVID-secure” arrangements and making a special effort to reassure your staff.

In all of this, please don’t underestimate the cultural implications that hang in the balance with how the return to work is managed. McKinsey & Company have looked at what will likely become the new normal for the “post pandemic workforce,” exploring how large attempts to instil permanent remote working practices within Yahoo! And HP.inc failed due to a lack of cultural cohesion: no attempts were made to unify the work-from-home and work-in-the-office worlds, so it became a case of “one or the other,” and the traditional basis of both companies prevailed.

The way forward lies in a concerted effort to communicate authentically and honestly.

Thinking big for the longer term


How you communicate internally with your team right now is as - if not more - important than how you communicate externally with customers, suppliers and other stakeholders. We strongly recommend being flexible in your decisions.

For example, if a proportion of your team has genuine anxieties around safety in the office, can you see from their performance to date that remote working has been successful? If so, can you communicate that this can continue, whilst working to address their anxieties via appropriate mental health and wellbeing interventions? All whilst taking the time to reassure them that you have their interests at heart. When considering adjustments, always bear in mind the yardstick set by The Equality and Human Rights Commission and weigh up whether the request is reasonable and could be replicated across your workforce.

Communication doesn’t just entail conversations around your employees’ feelings and emotions. It’s highly likely that you have invested time, energy and money into making your working environment “COVID-secure,” but have you made everyone aware of this? Sometimes, the simplest and most effective communication comes from taking two minutes to pause before spelling things out. In this case, going into detail about the office environment adjustments is relevant because the detail will provide much comfort to your team.

In conclusion

It would seem that there is an appetite to get back to work, as many employees want to trade up their cramped home working environments and blurred lines between work and family life - but as per the Guardian’s incitement to the government, managing communications around a return to work must be done sensitively and responsibly for the mental wellbeing of all concerned.

You will be remembered so positively for how well you kept in touch with your team, communicated evolving working practices and provided reassurance when it came to concerns around returning to the office. The recompense for this emotional investment is a team that is truly with you as you keep on evolving your business. Time investment breeds loyalty and it’s our opinion that loyalty is what so many leaders, managers and business owners need in the current circumstances.