Back to the workplace: 7 considerations for planning the return to work 

In the current pandemic and the lock-down of much of the region’s economy and business activity, we have all grown used to working from home where possible and we have also been looking ahead to the time when the rules will be eased. As we now reach this point, the next big challenge is how we will manage the transition back to the workplace at different rates and times.

Bringing together teams of people who have been working remotely, self-isolating or recovering from the coronavirus – and of course this may continue for a while, in some form – brings its own challenges. These range from re-introducing people to the shared workplace, doing this carefully and with consideration for the continued need for physical distancing, reconnecting people and managing workloads, while ensuring that everyone feels safe and protected, while observing for any signs of health or wellbeing issues.   

Of course, this means preparing the physical workplace to handle the new rules governing the way we work together, but also preparing all the team members before they start the transition process and defining the steps that need to be taken to do this safely. This puts the emphasis on regular and clear communications with the team collectively and even individually – we all have our own personal circumstances to consider - as required.

It’s all part of ensuring the continued coherence of the team.    

Fortunately, Alliance Business Manchester School has the benefit of the insights of Sir Cary Cooper, 50th Anniversary Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health, who shares his views on what organisations need to do to prepare staff for the return to work - the 7 steps outlined below.  

One: Re-induction sessions
Most people are still going to be working from home for the foreseeable future and will only come into the workplace when absolutely necessary. But just because staff are not physically in the office doesn’t mean that employers shouldn’t be explaining how they are going to manage them now and in the future. Organisations should run ‘return to work’ sessions with all staff outlining how they are going to deal with social distancing, personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff, and dealing with customers and suppliers.

Two: Social distancing
To maintain social distancing employers have to think seriously about how they are going to manage meetings and interviews, and what to do about communal areas such as canteens and staff rooms. One option will be to stagger times when employees are in the office, while all meetings should remain virtual for the time being to minimise risks. PPE such as gloves, masks and anti-viral gel needs to be widely available. Reducing business travel both within and between countries to minimise the risks to your employees is another obvious option - much of this contact should be done virtually.

Three: Keep furloughed staff in touch
If you have furloughed staff it is important that you keep them involved in the business so that they still feel part of the team - even if you are not able to reassure them that their job is safe when the furlough period ends. Don’t withhold information, be open and transparent, communicate regularly with everyone. Be open and honest about the situation and engage workers in the decision-making that may affect their job.

Four: Watch workloads
Ensure workloads are not excessive and are achievable, and don’t overload people - especially if staff numbers are reduced in the business. Ensure deadlines are achievable and create a climate of trust and value for all in these insecure times. Remember that a recession is on its way so you need to support staff and make them feel valued. Particularly watch out for presenteeism. People who feel insecure in their jobs will try and work longer hours, come into work when they’re ill, and be sending emails all hours of the night and at weekends.

Five: Protect vulnerable staff
Organisations must protect those staff, such as those with serious medical conditions, who will be forced to continue to self-isolate even when the lockdown is lifted. You also need to protect those who have suffered bereavement as a result of the pandemic. Treat them with respect and find ways to support them.

Six: Recognise stress
Stress levels are likely to be high among many staff due to a range of factors such as job insecurity, their financial situation at home, and health concerns. Train line managers to recognise the symptoms of stress and ensure they have regular meetings with employees who are both working from home and who are now coming into the office.

Seven: Health and wellbeing
Looking after the health and wellbeing of staff who may have challenging issues at home such as juggling childcare and home-schooling, or maybe have financial worries if one partner is laid off, requires that Employee Assistance Plans or counselling or support is provided by the organisation. This can be difficult for SMEs to provide, but organisations must have an infrastructure available to help if people are not coping.