How to manage a post-lockdown return to the workplace, and keep your staff smiling

Lockdown restrictions have been easing for some time, but July brings with it the possibility of a long-waited removal of “all legal limits on social contact”. 

Which means, at last, a post-COVID return to the workplace for your staff, many of whom have been furloughed or working from home since the beginning of the first national Lockdown in March 2020.  

These are sure to be challenging times for your employees, full of uncertainty. As they emerge into the real world, dazed and bleary-eyed after months with only their laptop for company, there’s bound to be a tricky period of adjustment. 

How will you manage a July 2021 return to the office, while ensuring your key asset – your workforce – is happy, safe and productive? 

Things aren’t how they used to be. Cases of COVID-related mental illness have exploded. But with all the crisis and hardship of the pandemic comes new opportunity. 

Through Lockdown, your people have experienced something unprecedented, which has disrupted their way of working and forced many into new, entrepreneurial ways of thinking. 

By ensuring their return to the office is a safe and comfortable experience, you have the chance to harness this energy and release new levels of productivity in your people.

Here are 9 important steps you should take to ensure you put the welfare of your staff first, as you go through the tricky process of a full-scale return to work.  

1. Make sure your workplace is safe.

Your employees may feel reluctant to return to a place of possible infection, after long periods in control of their own work environment. It’s essential you make them feel safe. 

Besides, you can’t require staff to return to a place of work that isn’t safe.

Think about taking these actions:

  • Follow the latest government guidelines
  • Put in place a health and safety strategy
  • Minimise the risk of infection by regular cleaning, provision of hand sanitiser etc
  • Follow Health and Safety Executive advice and guidance
  • Offer staff access to an Employee Assistance Programme.
  • Seek support of occupational health advisers
  • Consult with and engage staff and their representatives so they feel valued

2. Allow flexible working if you can.

Homeworking has been a successful and practical solution for the vast majority of organisations and their staff during the pandemic.

Many of your employees won’t want to return to the drudgery of a daily commute to do a job they could be performing just as well at home. 

Do your very best to acknowledge your employees’ concerns if they express reluctance to return to the old ways of working: 

  • Take a good look at how successful homeworking has been for your business. 
  • Ask yourself how important it is for your business to have staff physically together.
  • Acknowledge to your staff that many of them of them won’t want to lose the flexibility they’ve enjoyed during Lockdown. Be clear that you’ll work with them to make the return to work safe and stress-free.
  • Explain clearly to them why you want them back in the office (if that’s what you’ve decided).
  • Remember that employees have the right to request flexible working. Make sure your flexible working policy is up to date, so you’re clear on how you’ll respond to requests (which are likely to increase hugely post-Lockdown).

3. Work up a fair and practical vaccination policy.

The vaccination programme is being rolled out fast, and is hailed as playing a key role in stopping the spread of Coronavirus.

But there will be employees who won’t have had a vaccine, because they choose not to for personal, health or religious reasons, or haven’t yet been offered it. 

It’s vital you consider what your business’ policy is on vaccinations.

  • Remember it’s not compulsory to have a vaccine. Having a vaccine is a personal choice.
  • Do your best to ensure respect and tolerance for workers who have chosen not to be vaccinated, and that staff feel safe if some people haven’t been vaccinated.
  • If you feel it’s important for staff to be vaccinated before returning to work, support them in getting the vaccine. Allow them paid time off for their appointment and signpost them to useful information on the vaccine. 
  • Talk to us before introducing a policy that requires staff to be vaccinated.
  • Protect their personal preferences, health concerns with a robust and appropriate GDPR policy. 

4. Listen to your staff’s concerns

Some of your employees will be really worried about returning to work in the ‘new world’. People are still getting infected, new variants continue to emerge, not everyone feels safe leaving home.

It’s vital you keep an open mind to your staff’s concerns. Keep the door open for dialogue. Be an excellent, active listener, listening non-judgmentally and with empathy. 

If your employees know you respect their concerns and value their feelings, they’ll stay with you on the journey to creating a safe and happy workplace. 

  • Are employees worried about taking public transport? What can you do to help them feel safe e.g. allowing them to travel off-peak?
  • Would they rather continue to work from home? How you help this happen e.g. a gradual return to being back in the office full-time?
  • Do they feel at risk of infection? How can you mitigate this e.g. a facemask policy in open areas, socially distancing of workspaces, creation of team ‘bubbles’?

Show and encourage tolerance. Be alert to signs of underlying anxiety in your staff’s behaviours and interactions. Uncharacteristic conflict, irrational outbursts, unexplained absences, employees who are unusually withdrawn – these are possible signs that all is not well.

Some staff will bring their own unique opinions, beliefs and fears to the workplace. Do your best to accommodate these feelings. How will you manage an employee who:

  • insists on wearing a face mask even if it’s no longer a requirement to do so?
  • refuses to work alongside a colleague who is not vaccinated?
  • will only work in a socially distanced work set-up?
  • does not wish to travel to work on public transport for fear of infection?

Your duty to ensure a safe workplace extends to minimising the risk of any staff member being mistreated by colleagues for any COVID-related reason. 

Having clear, open channels of communication is really important here: regular internal messaging, team talks from line managers, and strong, consistent input from senior leadership. 

Bringing staff together to celebrate their return and/or what they’ve achieved during Lockdown is also a great way to cement relationships and boost morale. 

5. Be clear about new working arrangements

As you move back to ‘normal’, you may be introducing new working arrangements for staff, such as changes to hours, working remotely, and even alterations to pay.

  • Remember your contractual obligations to staff, and that terms and conditions like pay can only be changed by agreement. 
  • Consult with staff and employee/Trade Union representatives on any changes to working conditions

6. Manage your staff’s annual leave entitlement

It may not have been possible for your staff to take their holidays during the pandemic. Many employees will have accrued untaken annual leave. It’s important you’re clear to staff on how you’ll be managing their annual leave when they return. 

  • A new law allows employees to carry over up to four weeks' statutory paid holiday to the next two years. This has to fit the business needs.
  • Be proactive. You need to ensure you’re not left with too many staff away on leave or employees with unmanageable amounts of untaken holiday.

7. Focus on wellbeing.

COVID-19 has not just affected the physical health of the nation. You’ll need to keep a close eye on the mental health and wellbeing of your staff. Isolation, bereavement and fear of infection have been contributing to increases in depression and other mental illnesses among workers. 

  • Encourage openness and dialogue about the importance of wellbeing and how to manage mental health.
  • Invest in occupational health and employee assistance programmes.
  • Offer mental health awareness training to staff, and especially managers.
  • Support staff in regaining an acceptable work-life balance.
  • Seek guidance from professional organisations.

8. Make sure your sickness policy is COVID-friendly.

There will inevitably be cases of staff illness due to the pandemic. Review your sickness policy to ensure it’s in line with the government’s changes to Statutory Sick Pay for employees affected by COVID-19.  

You need to be prepared for a case of COVID-19 in your workplace. Make sure your sickness policy is clear on the rights and obligations of the infected staff member(s), as well as the implications for other workers, for example their duty to self-isolate, and the impact on their pay. 

9. Keep on communicating.

This is perhaps the single most important thing to remember when you’re managing your staff’s return to the workplace.

There will be many uncertainties, fears and worries, most of which will be easy to deal with – as long as you’re on top of your communication. The last thing you want is anxiety growing out of proportion because staff feel they’re facing a wall of silence.  

What about employees who were furloughed and may feel ‘second best’ next to their colleagues who have continued working? And how will you limit any resentment among staff who have not enjoyed the ‘benefit’ of paid time off?

It’s important to acknowledge the resilience of all your employees, whatever their input since the start of the pandemic. Be sure to be open, transparent and approachable.

  • New ways off working should be clearly explained.
  • Consider ‘physically’ on-boarding staff who were hired during lockdown.
  • Give clear advice on hygiene and how to stop the spread.
  • Build morale with team events.

For help getting your employees back to the workplace, and any other pragmatic, creative HR advice and support, do get in touch.

Edelweiss HR Ltd

Cirencester Business Park
Tetbury Road
© Copyright 2022 Edelweiss HR Ltd. All Rights Reserved

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