By Nick Hanlon
Caution is the watchword as businesses consider a return to offices after months of working from home. When lockdown came into effect in March, there was a general feeling in the business community that a return to the office would be swift – but that has been far from reality.
With COVID cases on the rise, previous plans for non-essential offices to return at the start of October have been paused indefinitely. With so much uncertainty, flexibility is going to be key – and it seems that companies are planning for a more flexible future. According to research from the British Chambers of Commerce, “62 per cent of respondents expected some or all staff to be working remotely for the next 12 months” – and that figure rises to 71 per cent for those in the B2B sector.
Of course, many businesses are actively looking to return to the office – at least on a partial basis – as soon as Government advice changes. But with genuine unease about returning to the traditional office environment, it is crucial that businesses are paying serious attention to the concerns of their workforce.
The transition to working from home happened almost overnight, but much greater thought must go into plans for workforce re-entry. Simply bringing employees back to the office won’t miraculously see a return to pre-COVID levels of productivity and engagement unless employees feel supported – physically, emotionally and psychologically.
Weber Shandwick commissioned a report with KRC Research which found that around 80 per cent of employees say their employers will need to make changes to protect their health and safety before they feel comfortable returning to work. A simple order to return to the office is unlikely to be well received.
Putting power into the hands of employees is likely to bear better results. But in our experience, there are several issues employers must consider when it comes to handling this delicate situation.
Firstly, and most crucially, they must make employee wellbeing their top priority. Don’t risk undoing the hard work of the last few months by rushing people back to offices before they’re ready. That may mean taking a slow and steady approach, perhaps even being more cautious than government guidance says is necessary.
Regular communications from senior leadership is also vital. It’s important to remember though, that communication goes both ways – to ensure your re-entry plans meet the needs of your employees, you have to truly understanding what they think. Consider the best way to gauge opinions within your workforce to get an accurate picture on how people feel about returning to the office, and what they need from you in terms of re-assurance. It won’t be enough for you to simply tell employees it is safe to return to work. You’ll need to show it.
The measures employed by individual businesses will vary, but employees will expect to see genuine changes in the workplace – this may include an increased cleaning regimen, use of PPE where appropriate, and clear guidance on revised working protocols. And this cannot be static – the protocols you put in place will need to be updated as the situation evolves or even regresses.
For many, returning to the office will undoubtedly be an anxious time. Senior members of staff must be prepared to lead by example and support their teams when it comes to new ways of working. Showing genuine interest in how employees are feeling will go a long way to reassuring them that you care about their wellbeing.
Above all else, flexibility is key. After months of remote working, employees have discovered new ways to work and get their job done. Many will not want to lose that flexibility. As a business, do you need to undertake a wholesale review of your flexible working policies to respond to those mindset shifts? A hybrid model which blends office-based working with home and remote working is likely to appeal to many.
In addition, some businesses will look to bring certain employee groups back before others. If that is the case, you’ll have to be mindful that doing so does not make those not included feel less important.
The road ahead is filled with potential pitfalls. The need to proactively develop a workforce re-entry strategy that works for your business – and your employees – should not be underestimated. Not only is it the right thing to do for your staff, it will have a positive effect on your reputation, both internally and externally, for years to come.
Nick is a Senior Manager, Employee Engagement, at Weber Shandwick Scotland. He works across a range of sectors supporting clients with his specialist skills in employee engagement, media relations and consumer communications. Contact Nick at NHanlon@webershandwick.com