Return-to-work: the hows, the dos and the don’ts

Wednesday 26 May 2021
As employers across the country work to get staff back to the workplace, we ask managers how they’re navigating the return
People in their workplace in face masks

CMI’s research has shown that most companies appear to be considering a hybrid approach: 80% of managers are already working in a hybrid model (where one and four days a week are onsite and the remaining are remote) and as we emerge from the pandemic, managers do not want homeworking to become a matter of the past – 61% said they ideally expect their staff to work in a blended fashion, showing a big takeup of the practice. A survey by the BBC mirrored this: 43 firms questioned said they will allow staff to work from home two to three days per week.

Inevitably, transitioning back into an office environment will be no easy task, not least due to the logistical challenges around managing staggered work times and ad-hoc use of desk space.

To help, we’ve put together some tips on how employers can navigate a successful return to the workplace.

Consult with your workforce

Employee consultation is an absolute must. Joe Wilson, chambers director at barrister firm St Philips Chambers, says it’s about giving staff a voice to air their views and concerns. “We have continually kept staff aware of all developments using Zoom, email, and phone calls,” he explains. “People have to know their concerns and wellbeing are taken into consideration. You have to keep everyone in the loop and feel like they’ve had a voice.”

Accountancy firm BDO has also consulted with staff and found that 79% want more remote and agile working, which helped them develop their hybrid approach. “We’ve been listening to our people, talking to our clients and thinking about the best way to return to the office in a way that balances wellbeing with work,” says Paul Eagland, managing partner at BDO.

There’s no one hybrid model, so employee consultation will help you to build a model that’s unique to the needs of your employees and your organisation.

Keep employee needs at the heart of your approach

“We were keen that our return plans reflected the wants and needs of our employees and business, so we surveyed more than 9,000 of our staff,” says Hayley Penn, HR business lead at Intuit QuickBooks. “There are still mixed feelings when it comes to the return to the office, which is why we have decided on a voluntary and phased approach.”

The firm is planning a ‘soft open’ of its head office with a voluntary but restricted return across smaller sites before a partial opening of larger sites later on.

Trust your staff

Marketing consultancy Clevertouch is planning a hybrid return, making three days a week at the office the ‘new normal’. But for this new approach to work, it’s “essential” that interdepartmental relationships are built on trust, says co-founder Adam Sharp. “Business leaders need to show that they trust their employees to work in a way which suits them, but which also drives productivity. To demonstrate this, we’ve made it clear that no one is required to come back to the office unless they want to.”

Don’t be too prescriptive

“Instead of telling staff, we will give our people the choice depending on what task they are working on,” says BDO’s Paul Eagland. The only ‘rule’ will be for people to work where they are most productive, whether it’s one of the newly refurbished office hubs, client sites or at home.

BDO has invested £8m in refitting its offices to create ‘vibrant hubs’ to support new ways of working, plus it intends to increase its technology spend by an additional £10m per annum over the next three years to ensure staff has access to all the kit it needs.

Carry out a rigorous risk assessment

St Philips Chambers says it has been ‘deliberately cautious’ in getting staff back to the office. There have been rigorous risk assessments and they are implementing infection-control measures such as temperature checks, wearing masks in communal areas, regular use of sanitiser and one-way systems. They’ll also be keeping teams in bubbles as much as possible.

Keep wellbeing on the agenda

An internal survey by Intuit QuickBooks showed that 79% of staff reported loneliness; it was therefore important the return strategy ‘amplified’ a sense of connectedness regardless of the place of work. Intuit QuickBooks says it is exploring in-person days, which could include company-wide events or offsite team activities. “We want to empower our teams to decide for themselves what works for them,” Hayley adds.

“It’s more important than ever for employers and line managers to keep an eye on their teams’ wellbeing,” says Charles Alberts, head of wellbeing solutions at Aon and CMI member. “It can be all too easy to fall into the trap of assuming that because everything is returning to normal, everyone will be feeling fine, too. And while some employees will embrace a return to the office, there will inevitably be some who will be unsettled by the change, perhaps also still worried about their health and that of their loved ones.

“Line managers should check in regularly with their team, understand their personal circumstances and how they are feeling about what lies ahead, keep an eye out for signs of distress. Offer in-role support such as greater flexibility, but also signpost them to professional support where required.”

Address potential conflict early

With more than 20 million adults having received both doses of a Covid-19 vaccine, according to UK government figures, it’s likely the jab/no-jab issue will cause conflict or tension as people return to the office. “Most staff agreed to our staggered approach to returning to the office, but there has been tension between two staff members with opposing views on vaccinations,” says Dermot Kennedy, a partner at accountants Giltinan and Kennedy LLP. “I approached both of them individually, but it’s very challenging. There are a lot of legal aspects to consider and I need to take both views on-board.”

Dermot is still in talks with both employees, but he remains confident a solution can be found as discussions have taken place early enough. “You just have to be flexible,” he says.

Encourage – don’t enforce

From a legal perspective, Wilson of St Philips Chambers advises firms to encourage rather than enforce, particularly when the issue is a sensitive or controversial one. “The legalities are far from black and white, so while we encourage staff to get vaccinated and we’ve also introduced lateral flow testing, we aren’t enforcing it.”

We’d love to hear how you’re managing the return to work phase. Do you have any tips you’d like to share with the community? Get in touch with us here, or by using #BetterManagers on social media.

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