This may sound simple, but it poses several challenges. Managers will need to address the practicalities of transitioning out of lockdown, what the new normal should look like and anticipate potential legal issues.
Going back to the workplace will be challenging for all employees and not just those in office management or HR. Staff will need to feel comfortable, which means ensuring the building that houses the office is safe, as well as the workplace area itself.
As Mark Walsh, a Director at Savills says, “businesses need to be adaptable as rules will change in the future, often at very short notice”. He highlights practical challenges that firms face, including shortages of PPE, as well as the cost of fitting equipment such as temperature scanners and air filters.
Business leaders will need to think about commuting – there no point in having a sterile office, with appropriate safety measures in place, if staff end up contaminating it following their commute. Addressing the commuting issue could include introducing shifts, or staggering start and finish times for employees.
Despite all the safety measures, there is still a major risk of catching COVID-19 and businesses will need contingency plans.
There is good news from Asia, where businesses have already been through the return to work. Companies should look to learn from them and even improve on what they have done – be that closing staff kitchens, daily health checks, or keeping desks further apart.
Communication is critical and businesses need to engage with employees. Currently, there is some confusion in the UK about when employees should be encouraged back into the office which emphasises how communications must be clear and based on the latest Government guidelines. This will all be part of the new normal, which we will all need to get used to.
All businesses will have their own new normal, but Louise Patterson, Chief People Officer / independent HR consultant and coach, has highlighted three key questions that need to be addressed upfront by all: “Why are you returning to the office? What do you want to achieve? What do you want your new normal to be?” Answering these questions will help inform plans on when and how to return to the workplace in the weeks and months ahead.
Listening to and properly understanding the views of all employees will be crucial, as the long absence from the office and new ways of working remotely will have reshaped views on what some team members want going forward . Some will have enjoyed the benefits of working from home, such as no commuting and being able to spend more time with their families. Others, perhaps those who live alone and for whom office social life has always been important, might be struggling with isolation and keen to be back alongside colleagues It’s likely that some work processes have changed, potentially with greater individual autonomy and empowerment, less rigid reporting and approval processes, and employees who have feel they have stepped up will want to continue to grow and develop. For Louise, the best way to address the balancing act is to “actively listen to understand what employees want and need whilst sharing what the business is trying to do and why. Don’t make assumptions and be aware that attitudes are shifting fast” Communication needs to be open, continuous and two-way.
Sian Keall, Partner at law firm Travers Smith, stresses that the return to the office will raise legal issues, which need careful handling. These include choosing which employees to take out of furlough and why, as well as not being able to “force” people to go back to the office. Companies can leave themselves open to accusations of discrimination if they make mistakes.
Businesses also need to be careful about which staff can safely return to the office. Health and safety will always be paramount, and that means carrying out risk assessments, social distancing measures and effective and regular communications.
Lockdown has been a challenge, but it also gives companies an opportunity to rethink. Business leaders can look at what works and what does not work? What is an office? Can it be 100% remote? What about our finances? Can we re-focus cash? As Alistair McCann, Chief Finance Officer at Brainlabs says, “lockdown has arguably brought teams and companies closer together through common adversity.”
Things will never be the same again, but it is important, as the UK economy transitions out of self-imposed isolation, that business leaders move forward and work with employees to create an office environment fit for the new normal and the new, very real, challenge we all face.
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