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Re-opening the workplace during COVID-19

Organisations are getting ready to respond to the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. The government’s latest roadmap is careful to address that working from home should continue at the current time. However, given that the forecast - and hope - is to remove “all legal limits on social contact [...] no earlier than June 21”, there isn’t all that much time for businesses to plan for the present, the immediate future and then the rest of the year.

That means there is a need to plan for and communicate with employees around:

1. Returning from home or remote working

This is a wider question that needs to be addressed strategically and then laid out in easy-to-understand policies. Make sure this process is gradual and appropriate. You need to be able to operate your business, whilst considering the individual circumstances of your employees such as those who are shielding, have caring responsibilities, are socially isolated, who travel on public transport etc.

Whilst June is still some time away - and a lot can change from now until then - if you start to communicate your plans and intentions at this stage, your people will see how invested you are in planning the best return to work for them. Make this process two-way by encouraging your employees to keep their manager informed if they have any worries about returning to work.

Your employees will likely need reassuring that it’s safe to return. Something we’ve done for our own team at Benenden Health is a virtual walkaround of the newly reconfigured HQ, to show our team how seriously we take their health and safety. This received positive feedback and has helped our people to feel more comfortable with returning to the office.

There’s also the mental health of your workforce to consider. People are generally feeling more anxious about being back in closer proximity to other people. At Benenden Health we are working with our managers and Mental Health First Aiders to make sure they check-in regularly with colleagues and provide reassurance that there’s someone they can speak to if they are feeling concerned or anxious.

2. Returning from furlough

The furlough scheme has presented a unique challenge throughout the pandemic. It has been difficult for employees placed on furlough, for their teammates who are picking up workload, and for the managers trying to keep everyone’s morale up. When bringing back team members from furlough, a lot of the concerns can be eased if regular contact has been maintained with them whilst they have been out of the business.

A formal re-briefing session would be a good idea, to bring them up to speed with team changes, new procedures, and your expectations of their role in a workplace where things are evolving. This is also an ideal forum for them to ask questions and air any concerns about job security, so the briefing session is one that managers should be well prepared for.

Beyond the formalities of returning employees, encourage social time between members of the team, so that they can share experiences of being away from work and, parallel to that, working during the pandemic. We all know just how lonely things have been for both those working from home and on furlough, so do try to be part of a culture that fosters connection.

3. A more flexible workplace

Rebecca Mian, head of HR at Benenden Health, advises: “remember, the rules could change at any time and the approach needs to be flexible. Keep a close watch on government guidelines and recommendations and make sure your business is equipped to change its working practices quickly if needed.”

To remain agile and responsive - not just to legislative changes but to the needs of your people - it’s a good idea to have a small and dedicated group of senior leaders tasked with looking after the office during the pandemic. Keeping things amongst fewer people means that meetings are likely to be regular and decisions made quickly, from the overall operation of the business down to individual employee requirements.

When changes are made, communicating these succinctly and quickly will ensure that the rest of the business is on board rather than resistant to the latest news. Your line managers can be an asset here: keeping them regularly informed about the organisation’s contingency plans will allow them to cascade that information to their teams.

This flexibility needs to extend to each team member’s needs. For example, those returning from remote working may not have childcare options available to them right now, so detailed workplace assessments will be needed to make sure that everyone can complete their duties in a way that works for their daily life.

4. Coronavirus symptoms

The ever-advancing vaccination programme is welcome news to many people. However, the vaccine is not a cure-all for transmission of COVID-19, so everyone is encouraged to remain vigilant to symptoms and to follow appropriate action if a new infection is suspected.

Circulate a symptom checker (such as an infographic) to your team now and keep this updated on the walls around your workplace. Without wanting to scaremonger staff, the visual cues will keep them mindful of the need to respect space and hygiene measures, whilst also keeping them alert to staying at home if they - or a loved one - start to exhibit symptoms of COVID-19.

On that note, your team will be more engaged and less likely to take risks if you streamline and clarify your process for calling in sick and reporting in to work from home.

5. What about supporting those who are off with the coronavirus?

Our understanding of the physical impact of the coronavirus - both short and long term - is still very much a learning curve. We now know that re-infection is entirely possible and that the vaccine, whilst hopefully reducing the severity of symptoms, does not prevent infection, nor does it prevent transmission of the virus.

Employers must be guided by their employee’s symptoms and ability to perform their roles. If an employee is struggling, having a protocol to follow is helpful, when it comes to reconsidering working hours, pace, or duties.

COVID-19 seems to follow the pattern of viral infections in its propensity to bring on fatigue during and after recovery. For many, this may mean energy levels take some time to return to normal, which may impact upon their ability to fulfil full-time work commitments.

Where possible, as part of your planning, consider the following adjustments:

  • Carry out a health assessment before the individual returns to work, to make sure workplace adjustments are made.

  • The current nationally recognised period of working from home may help the post-infection colleague. Wherever possible, supporting the working from home option may well cause less stress and more flexibility within the working day – and all of this may help with post infection fatigue. It could also be beneficial to the employee to phase their return to work, so they can gradually build up to their normal workload and allotted hours.

  • Consider adjusting the type of work required. For example, if the role includes heavy manual labour can lighter duties be given for a period?

However, as with any illness, a person’s response and recovery is very individual, so for any employer the principles and processes must be tailored and flexible, providing tangible guidance and support.

When your colleague is ready to return to work, it is helpful to make their return as stress free as possible. Small steps such as removing them from being copied into any email chains that don’t require their input or action, can help avoid a sense of overwhelm with “catching up.”

Make their capabilities and limitations clear to the rest of the team and use this opportunity to address any concerns that people may have with being in proximity to someone who has recently caught COVID-19. Again, the best outcomes arise from open, honest, and frequent internal communications.

6. A COVID-secure workplace

Benenden Health’s approach to workplace safety follows government guidance and ensures that we are meeting a high standard of employee welfare for everyone. To make sure that your workplace is safe for your team, consider:

  • Having an office deep clean on a regular basis. Whereas these were previously a more seasonal occurrence, they should now form part and parcel of regular maintenance and hygiene. Cleaning professionals should be on site during operating hours to always keep on top of sanitisation. It’s also important to communicate the importance of a clear desk policy to your team to make sure their workstations can be thoroughly cleaned once they have left for the day.

  • Installing hand washing stations upon entrance to the building with hand sanitiser stations on floors or separated areas.

  • Installing acrylic desk screens, as required.

  • Encouraging limited movement and split lunchtimes across the business to allow all colleagues to maintain the guidance of 1 metre plus social distancing.

  • Reconfiguring your spaces, where possible to ensure a 2-metre seating distance between colleagues.

  • Clearly signposting one-way systems for busy areas and maximum capacity recommendations for meeting rooms.

  • Completing COVID-secure risk assessments and implementing new office procedures, which are clearly signposted to employees.

  • Employees should undergo appropriate health and safety training whilst they are remote, to ensure that they re-enter the workplace having fully understood their part in keeping the environment COVID-secure.

The best measures in the world will only go so far without your team fully on board with following the new protocols. As part of briefing them on the plans you are making to ensure their safety, make sure to lay out your expectations ahead of the return to work.

7. What about clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) team members?

Clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) workers - those defined by the government as being at very high risk of serious illness from coronavirus - should still work from home if possible and special consideration should also be given to workers caring for those who are classed as CEV.

This is just one circumstance when individual workplace assessments and one-to-ones are necessary, to build a full picture of your colleague’s life, their own wants and the risk associated with them coming into a workplace. Ultimately, you will want to work towards a mutually agreed plan, which prioritises their wellbeing.

8. Supporting your people

This is a time of extraordinary pressure on your people. The CIPD has produced an up-to-date checklist of things to consider when it comes to supporting your team emotionally.

The first step is to listen to your people: some employees may be very worried about catching the virus, whether on a personal level or because of vulnerable people within their support bubble. Reassurance is key here; that you have listened to their concerns, that the workplace is a carefully controlled environment and that remote options can remain in place, if required.

Signpost employees to further advice or support, such as an employee assistance programme and any other wellbeing resources you have available. This is where having a healthcare for business partner can really help.

It’s likely that many of your team would benefit from speaking to a counsellor, which is just one of the many benefits that Benenden Health for Business offers. Our model lets us get started with you quickly and efficiently, so the necessary support can be in place well ahead of your team coming back to the workplace.

Do keep checking in on people’s workloads and stress levels and offer support where possible. If you can, adjust targets for employees who remain working and be flexible with deadlines. Just as we advocate the use of specially trained Mental Health First Aiders, who can be a port of call for those who are in distress, it makes sense to signpost an approachable manager who would like to hear from those who identify that their workload could lead to problems further down the line.

Deloitte’s recent analysis of the post-pandemic workplace makes it clear that wellbeing and keeping your people connected to the purpose of their role will be fundamental to a happy and healthy workplace.

In conclusion

Despite the likelihood of the roadmap changing between now and June, we can see that the overall guidance around working safely has remained consistent. Planning forward from now makes sense and it will be easier to tweak a robust plan than to start from scratch a week or two before you can fully open your workplace to those who want to work from the office again.

If healthcare for business makes sense for you in light of its ability to offer the resource and support that so many teams need, we would be happy to talk through options with you.

Benenden Health has produced a coronavirus hub, with more tips and information about how to stay healthy as a business and individuals during the COVID-19 outbreak. It also outlines any changes or enhancements to our services in response to the global pandemic. Visit our COVID-19 hub for more information.