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Lucie Mitchell investigates what employers need to do to tackle back to the workplace anxiety.
The last week has seen the relaxing of the lockdown as non-essential shops reopen in England and pubs and restaurants are able to serve people outside. Meanwhile, schools went back in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as vaccination continued across the UK.
Even if some employers don’t envisage a return to work until the furlough scheme comes to an end in September, many employers will be preparing now to ensure the transition back to the workplace is as smooth as possible for all involved. So how should they go about it?
A recent survey by Cignpost Express Test revealed that only half of businesses had devised a plan to return employees to the office, while just 27% understood how to ensure a safe return to the office after lockdown.
Yet after several months on furlough, the return to work could be causing much anxiety and apprehension for employees. Indeed, workingmums.co.uk has received emails from anxious employees worried about having to go back to the commute and to sharing an office space. Moreover, there are many things to consider before welcoming staff back to the office.
It’s essential therefore that employers manage the process effectively and promote clear and open communication from the beginning. There are a number of key areas for employers to focus on now to help ensure the transition is a success.
“To start with, it will be useful for employers to review how a job role may have changed during the furlough period and what the ways of working may look like when an employee returns,” advises Emma Swan, head of commercial employment law at Forbes Solicitors.
Ruth Cornish, co-founder and director of HRi, adds that all workforces will obviously need to be fully Covid-19 secure, with new health and safety protocols clearly communicated to staff.
“If a company is welcoming back highly anxious team members from furlough, they will also need to provide an extra layer of reassurance during this time, which is of paramount importance as getting this right now will ensure longer term employee loyalty down the line.”
The pandemic has obviously impacted many businesses, which may lead some employers to consider using flexible furlough to ease staff back in and reduce wage bills until the business builds back up. Yet it is essential to handle this correctly, with honest communication being key.
“It’s important to be as open as possible about your current commercial situation and plans to address it as this provides context to help returning employees understand your actions,” remarks Lynne Hardman, CEO of Working Transitions. “In addition, being clear what their part is in supporting the organisations to achieve these goals creates the sense of purpose that is vital for engagement and motivation.”
Employers could consider Keep in Touch (KIT) days, suggests Cornish. “This will enable employees to build up their hours slowly and make the process of getting back to work less full on.”
There will also be a variety of individual needs and issues to consider when employees return to the workplace. “There may be people who have suffered bereavement of a close family member during furlough or employees who have been shielding or are suffering from long Covid,” comments Hardman.
Employers may therefore want to conduct a mental health and stress survey to identify what collective needs those furloughed workers have and how to help them, adds Cornish. “Prior to furloughed workers returning to the workplace, employers should consider arranging a one-to-one wellbeing check-in, ideally via video call or virtual team catch-ups,” she advises.
“They must also keep employees informed of any company developments and ensure a line manager is available to discuss any work-related concerns an employee may have about the current situation and the future.”