Returning to work: Eight challenges identified by HR professionals

Author: Sheila Attwood

Employers in England are being encouraged to reopen workplaces to staff who cannot work from home, while those in other parts of the UK are likely to be making plans ahead of similar moves. Sheila Attwood reports on how respondents to HR & Compliance Centre's fourth HR and coronavirus survey are preparing for the return to work.

There is an understanding in many organisations that employees have a "general anxiety about returning post lockdown". Few employers at this stage seem to be preparing for a full return to the workplace, and are instead looking to accommodate only those who need, or want, to go back. Based on responses to our fourth HR and coronavirus pulse survey, we look at eight challenges that organisations face and how they are preparing.

1. Transport plans

One of the first challenges is how employees get to the workplace. Organisations report some are reluctant to travel on public transport. A manufacturer where "the majority of employees travel by public transport" is "looking to implement a rota so that employees can drive in on a rota system", although it acknowledges that it only has a limited number of parking spaces. Another is looking at whether those who can walk or cycle can (voluntarily) return to the workplace first, while others are ensuring that those who would otherwise have to travel by public transport can continue to work from home. A charity has gone further than most with the stipulation that "those who need to use public transport to get to work are currently not permitted to return".

2. Health and safety

This area spans many of the concerns that organisations told us about. While talk of heightened health and safety measures in the workplace is widespread, survey respondents expressed concerns in a number of areas: the practicalities of some of the measures that will be required; employee confidence in the practices adopted; the ability of the organisation to monitor the safety measures; and employee adherence. One organisation described it as "driving behaviour change" so that employees know that the measures "are here to stay".

Having the space to implement the required social distancing protocols is highlighted by many organisations. One will overcome this by "splitting each department and they will rotate from working two weeks at home and two weeks at the offices". Another is concerned about "how to navigate around a small office keeping to social distancing measures," and is "not sure yet how to overcome this but probably by having small teams come into the office at any one time with others working from home".

A manufacturer acknowledges the "nervousness about returning to work" and is "reassuring employees about enhanced hygiene practices and our COVID safe workplace, including updated risk assessments".

Many workplaces will not be able to accommodate a full complement of people, given the social distancing protocols that must be adhered to. Plans in place include:

  • a tech company that is planning staged returns, with those with a preference to return to the workplace being first;
  • asking for volunteers to come back into the workplace first; and
  • "staggered return times and build up gradually".

3. Preparing employees for the return to work

A number of employers noted there was work to be done around reintegrating furloughed workers and those who have been working from home back into the workplace. Although there is inevitably a lot to do to prepare the workplace for staff to return, employers are making sure that they prepare employees too:

  • "We anticipate conducting 'Open Days' for small groups of employees to visit the company to view the arrangements for safe working methods before they return permanently to work. All employees will attend 'Employee Induction Courses' to teach them these new safe working methods prior to re-joining work."
  • "We have already begun to communicate with employees about returning, to gauge feelings and concerns and deal with these prior to lockdown restrictions being lifted."
  • "Asking staff to complete a survey relating to how they feel about returning to the workplace and what would make them feel safe as well as any concerns they may have so that we can use this information to help with our workforce planning and re-boarding."
  • "We will be introducing a Return to the Workplace Induction."
  • "[We] envisage reluctance from some staff - furloughed or working from home - to resume normal working practices. [We] will communicate all measures taken to ensure employee safety and work around issues like use of public transports and childcare as best we can, eg staggered start/finish times; some continuation of working from home some days. Need to address issues as presented by individuals."
  • "Homeworking has been very successful so there will be a challenge with encouraging staff to return to the main office in due course. Our current position is that this will continue until the risk is significantly reduced and only then, when the Government provides that assurance. In readiness for this, we have continued to focus on communication - being transparent around risk assessments and measures being taken to demonstrate we are taking every precaution to protect their health and safety - but this manages expectations that we are planning for what a return might look like and reassuring them that this will only be in consultation."

4. Settling back into work

For many employees, the workplace won't look or feel the same as the one they left several months ago. A manufacturer that has furloughed more than 80% of its staff is expecting to struggle with employee "engagement about the reality of the situation [with] reduced wages and benefits". It, along with many others anticipating a downturn in its business, expects to have to make redundancies. As one organisation describes it, "balancing commercial reality with retaining employment" will be a challenge. Others point to the difficulty in maintaining employee engagement as decisions are made about the future of the business.

Several organisations want, and probably need, to get up to full working capacity as quickly as possible as their premises reopen. However, one organisation is concerned about "constant issues around social distancing and safety at work interrupting the day job", while another highlights the need to "get the balance right with practicable changes in the workplace against inefficiency". Inevitably, organisations will have to find new ways to make things work, as this respondent acknowledges: "How to evolve our business to maintain social distancing with our customers/visitors and still make enough revenue."

One widely anticipated change is a shift to more homeworking than there was before the pandemic. On the whole businesses seem to welcome this approach to working, including this services company: "We plan to trial homeworking on a more permanent basis, which we will share ahead of time, so we can see if this works when business is running at normal volume. If it does, staff will be able to apply to work more flexibly, which we would embrace more than we had prior to the pandemic." A property management company also plans to adopt a "wait and see" approach before making any commitments: "Working out where we go from here - may be different ways of working - maybe more homeworking as it has been working well for those who can."

Finding the right working pattern for the business and employee alike is expected to be a challenge in some organisations: "How we will manage future flexible working measures, now most people have proved their role can be done from home, while still maintaining a sense of team/culture and encouraging innovation?"

5. Employee mental health

Looking after employees' mental health and wellbeing has been a challenge since the coronavirus outbreak started, and many HR professionals see it as an ongoing one, particularly around managing employees' anxieties about going back to the workplace.

It is not just those organisations that are re-opening their workplaces that have mental health considerations: an organisation in the public sector told us it is "supporting staff experiencing mental health difficulties as a result of being on the front line throughout the COVID outbreak." A manufacturer is taking steps not to forget "those employees with existing mental health problems which have been exacerbated by the current pandemic".

Throughout the pandemic organisations have put in place a host of initiatives to help employees look after their mental health, from access to an employee assistance programme to online resources. One employer is looking after its employees' mental health via "reassurance through safety measures, good communications and promoting the employee assistance programme".

6. Annual leave

An amendment to the Working Time Regulations 1998 means that workers can carry over up to four weeks' annual leave into the next two holiday years, where it has not been reasonably practicable for them to take it as a result of the effects of coronavirus.

Managing annual leave requests is on the mind of many HR professionals, often around ensuring that staff are taking a break: "Employees are reluctant to take holiday so we may issue notice that employees have to take it," a housing association told us. A property company says that "holiday uptake and insisting on rest periods will not be welcomed by employees 'as they have nowhere to go'." Having employees with accrued leave and trying to manage work schedules around this was also highlighted as an issue.

7. Managing individual cases

Inevitably, there will be a handful of individuals whose circumstances have to be looked at on a case-by-case basis, and our survey respondents noted that they were taking this approach to some of the more complicated cases that presented themselves. Most are happy for those who are shielding, or have caring responsibilities to continue to work from home, but some concerns were raised about "employees self-diagnosing the need to shield in order to avoid the workplace" and those "who do not feel safe to return to work but who are not medically vulnerable or living with someone who is vulnerable." This latter organisation is "trying to overcome this through effective communication, explaining what has been done to support and maintain the safety of our employees".

8. Adapting to the new normal

The "new normal" is a phrase we're becoming familiar with, but not all organisations are certain of what this will look like. Many envisage that the workplace won't go back to how it was before, but one organisation described its main HR challenge as "adjusting to the new normal of working in an office". There are those among our respondents who will embrace the new-found flexibility in their workforce and welcome employees working from home more often. Others, however, express concerns about the loss of workplace culture and interaction, and fear a workplace exodus that they would rather avoid.

A technology company is worried about when these two approaches meet: "It's working well when everyone is working from home or if everyone is back in the studio, but having some people in and out at various times may affect team dynamics (maybe some people will have more face time together and those working at home miss key info), and it'll be important to keep track of people's whereabouts from a duty of care perspective - will need to have a lot of oversight and management."