Why taking the slow road back to the office may make more sense

Last week we were encouraged to return to our workplaces. Whilst this may seem like a logical next step in the return to a pre-pandemic state and a further reactivation of the economies of towns and cities, it’s a step that is fraught with potential problems. At the same time we were hearing this encouragement, the formal government advice for offices and contact centres was updated. I was surprised to read that it still advised that:

“People who can work from home should continue to do so. Employers should decide, in consultation with their workers, whether it is viable for them to continue working from home. Where it is decided that workers should come into their place of work then this will need to be reflected in the risk assessment and actions taken to manage the risks of transmission in line with this guidance.”

Given this, any employer or employee could be forgiven for feeling confused. Whilst the guidance document is a pretty robust 30-plus pages, if you’re running a small organisation and trying to survive, it’s questionable if you’d have time to read it all.

Undertaking a full risk assessment for Covid-19 is not as straightforward as it may seem. There are multiple factors to consider from keeping the air conditioning controls clean to using the communal kitchen areas. Having completed the risk assessment, employers then have to put in place the appropriate mitigations to protect their employees against the risks of transmission. The potential costs of precautions may then be prohibitive when many organisations are already facing a financial battle to survive.

Having taken those steps there are still a range of potential issues that may make it hard for many employees and many employers to return to offices. Many workers have taken on extended or new responsibilities during the lockdown that they can’t just give up. Some have found themselves becoming an “accidental carer” as they have had to support clinically vulnerable family members or neighbours. In her recent blog, Dr Zofia Bajorek specifically focuses on the challenges for carers during the pandemic. Similar issues may also extend to pet owners and their animals with the RSPCA providing guidance on how to minimise the stress to animals of going out to work again.

Anecdotally, I have heard a real mix of employee attitudes; with some people never wanting to return to an office again and others desperate to resume office life. The health and wellbeing impact on employees may not be fully apparent to their employers until a full return to the workplace. This may require greater levels of understanding and support from line managers and HR teams.

There continues to be people still shielding because of health vulnerabilities as well as those who feel unsafe and unable to return. Employers will need to work hard to ensure that further inequalities don’t emerge at work with a separation of those working remotely and those attending the office.

There are four million people in work who are either disabled or have a work-limiting condition. The disruptions of lockdown may have proved that there are many more jobs that can be done from home, but for some the return to an office may have more complications.

The massive disruption to the Health Service has meant that some workers have conditions that may have gone undiagnosed or had existing treatment interrupted. Employers will need to understand and support staff whose ability to work has been impacted and may need time off for medical appointments. With the move to local authorities having new powers to impose and manage local lockdowns, there may be a number of false starts in re-opening offices that could increase cost and anxiety.

HR teams have worked extremely hard during the pandemic in supporting employees, keeping operational HR running and managing furlough. For office-based organisations, HR now has a new challenge and an opportunity to have further positive impact by leading the work on how a return is managed. There have been too many stories recently of poor management and HR practices, together with a lack of care for the safety of employees.

The guidance and the law is pretty clear, as the HSE informs workers — you have the right to:

  • work in places where all the risks to your health and safety are properly controlled;
  • stop working and leave the area if you think you are in danger.

In talking to our HR Network members, there is already good work going on in some organisations to understand the benefits that have come from remote working and the lessons to be learned. HR teams need to step up to the challenge of both protecting employees and enabling organisational recovery. Whilst some organisations have reported reduced productivity with staff working from home, perhaps this is the time to challenge what makes a physical office the best place to work from.

Many managers talk about productivity as if it is a clearly defined and measured thing. In reality we still don’t properly understand how to measure or improve productivity. It would be good to see more HR teams willing to challenge senior management directives on getting people back into the previous workplace in ways that support good work.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.

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