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workingmums.co.uk’s toolkit provides best practice on areas relevant to our emergence from COVID-19 lockdown, from transition back to work for furloughed staff to managing flexible and remote working, and online recruitment.
workingmums.co.uk has organised many roundtables on a number of issues linked to career breaks, long or short, and charted the development of best practice over the years. One of the issues that comes up is how to normalise periods of leave because, as people work longer, it is likely that more and more will take time out for a whole variety of reasons and seek to re-enter. That is certainly true during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many workers have been furloughed. Sometimes colleagues continue to work while others are on furlough; sometimes furloughed workers are swapped in and out of the business according to need; and sometimes entire teams are on furlough because their business cannot operate during lockdown.
That means quite a number of employers will be looking at how they transition those workers back, if they are to come back into the organisation, and how they keep in touch while they are not working.
Many lessons can be learnt from returners, particularly those returning from shorter periods of leave, such as parental leave.
There is a body of best practice building on how best to support those who are temporarily out of the workplace and workingmums.co.uk would like to offer those findings in order to help employers ensure that the transition period, however long it lasts for, is as smooth as possible, given all the uncertainty involved.
We have also developed extensive knowledge of best practice in flexible and remote working that will hopefully help to normalise more inclusive ways of working for the long term.
Below are some of the key areas we have identified as we emerge from lockdown and suggestions on how to approach them, based on our best practice approach:
Line managers will be the ones dealing with day to day staffing issues and will require help and support in the form of toolkits or training, even if it is only to help them with signposting to other helpful resources. The pandemic represents an unprecedented challenge to our ways of working and line managers will need new skills, support and guidance to deal with some of the challenges, from increased remote working to dealing with the mental health issues linked to the pandemic as well as help to develop the resilience required in the months ahead.
Employers may want to look at ways to acknowledge and reward these different management skills, given that will convey a message about how much they are valued and how crucial they are to the core mission of the organisation.
Many of the returners we work with have taken years out of the workplace, often to bring up children. Furloughed workers will not face the daunting nature of coming back to work after a long gap, but, nevertheless, after weeks and perhaps months off, they may need a period of adjustment to the new norm, whatever that might be.
Some employers offer support to parents returning from parental leave through one to ones, parent forums or networks or buddies/mentors/coaches to build resilience. The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development suggests a re-induction period for furloughed workers.
While some employers may consider such forms of support are not necessary if, for instance, people have only been furloughed for relatively short periods, it is worth bearing in mind that the situation people are coming back into may be very different from the one they left, with new rules to communicate and adapt to and each individual will have their own particular circumstances where they might need additional support.
That may include concerns about close relatives with underlying health conditions, people with mental health issues either underlying, exacerbated by or entirely linked to the pandemic, concerns about childcare or about using public transport and many other situations.
Some people may still be on furlough or coming in and out of furlough if the scheme is extended. Keeping in touch with furloughed staff is important. Parents on parental leave are entitled to Keeping in Touch days and many find them an extremely useful, enabling them to know what is going on and preparing them for their return so they don’t face a deluge of information when they go back. While furloughed staff cannot work during their period out of the workplace, employers can include them in social events, such as online gatherings, as a way of keeping in touch.
One of the key issues for returners and those coming back from parental leave is confidence. It is worth focusing on the kind of skills they may have built on furlough, whether that is managing children, homeschooling or volunteering. All those activities will build important skills, ranging from empathy and emotional intelligence to motivational and organisational skills and it is good to acknowledge this and to show that those skills may be useful and are valued, particularly in a circumstance where some workers are furloughed and some are not – to avoid creating divisions.
Offering a forum where people can talk openly about their experience can counter any feelings of resentment. Furloughed workers may feel aggrieved, for instance, if other workers have not been furloughed and they were and those who have not been furloughed may also feel resentment that they have had to work while others are paid not to work.
Communication is key to misunderstanding and misinformation and line managers will need to ensure that everyone feels their contribution is valued and has as clear a vision of the role they are playing and how it fits into the underlying mission of the organisation as is possible in the circumstances. Clear and open communication channels are therefore vital, including regular check-ins with individual team members and signposting to any additional support offered.
However, employers should be aware of overloading people with information. Target information on a strict need-to-know basis and repeat messages about key safety issues.
Employee engagement through surveys or employee-led networks are important ways of getting feedback on what employees are thinking and to get ideas on ways to tackle particular issues, such as childcare problems.
Flexible working is likely to be a feature of many people’s working lives for some time as people worry about the issues such as travelling to work and ensuring their safety in it, particularly if they are more vulnerable, for instance, they are older workers, have underlying health issues or live with people who do. The uncertainty created by the current pandemic is only one of a number of disruptions facing industry, from automation to climate change.
Embracing flexible working should not therefore be seen as a one-off for this particular period, but as part of a core strategy for dealing with the uncertainty ahead, ensuring companies can keep working and developing and can hire the best talent, drawing from a diverse pool of people.
It is not enough to adopt an ad hoc approach. What is needed is a systematic review and a campaign to change mindsets and get people on board so that they are clear on the benefits of the flexible strategy. Toolkits, training and guidance is needed for line managers and a forum where they can openly discuss any concerns or worries.
One of the key issues that comes up in our discussions is the need for a flexible working framework, but one which is loose enough to allow for individual circumstances. It is important that managers are encouraged to understand what patterns work best for the individuals in their teams and to know their personal circumstances. A one size fits all approach doesn’t work.
Remote working is likely to become more common for all manner of reasons, but particularly as a way to enable businesses to keep working in times of disruption. It’s not quite as simple as just letting people use their laptops to get on with things. In the past few weeks homeworking may have been introduced in an emergency manner during lockdown and, while people may have had some experience of it before, they may not have had to work remotely for entire weeks so additional support will have to go into embedding it and providing technical, emotional and other support.
Everything has to do with switching from a presenteeism command and control mindset to a more open way of managing, based on motivating teams and building trust. Managers need to spend time understanding the context in which people are working and bear in mind that timetables and schedules will change as employees balance homeworking and homeschooling/childcare and other caring responsibilities. Clear communication is essential as is not overdoing check-ins so they undermine a sense of trust. Remote workers need, however, to feel they can ask for help if required.
Technology set-up is important and support for that in the form of laptops, mobiles and technical support make remote workers feel more like part of the team. Remote communication tools like slack and trello are good ways to stay in touch and to collaborate, but there are many tools available these days so, to avoid tool overload, decide on one or two that work best for everyone. Finally, video conferencing rather than teleconferencing can help to engage better with remote workers as it ensures people are fully engaged and means that visual cues are not missed.
Mental well being
Isolation is a big danger for those working remotely. To counter this requires regular catch-ups so managers can spot when something has changed about a colleague and also whether someone is overworking and feeling burnt out, a danger of remote working. The lack of visual cues from other people who go and take breaks or go for a stretch or decide that that is it for the day can make it more difficult for remote workers to realise that it is time to stop working.
Ensuring remote workers are part of support networks within the organisation is another way of making them feel connected. For instance, managers could plan virtual social meet-ups, such as regular coffee sessions, which people can drop into. If planned far enough ahead people can schedule them in and are more likely to attend.
If there is a mix of some staff working remotely and some in the office it is important to be mindful of that fact and to move some of the office-based communication online or keep remote workers visible and up to date, even about the informal conversations or those that might seem less important. Intranet and other forms of communication such as social media channels should feature remote workers so they feel seen and in order to enable them to access interesting opportunities within the organisation.
Local hubs and co-working
Local hubs can be a way of cutting down on commuting and addressing the safety concerns around that as well as breaking down the sense of isolation. Moreover, local co-working spaces and hubs are places where spontaneous interactions are expected and even encouraged so for those for whom a sense of connection to others is important, they can be a good solution as well as providing extra benefits, for instance, offering opportunities to learn from others.
Reduced hours or short-term working is also likely to be a consideration for those workers who have additional responsibilities and will have to be carefully negotiated and reviewed. Anyone working shorter hours will need to talk to their manager about how they can adapt their job to the time available to do it, for instance, they could give some tasks to an assistant or, perhaps, a more junior colleague, enabling them to develop their skills or some tasks may be automated.
workingmums.co.uk‘s research shows that often people who reduce their hours have no proper consultation on what that means for their workload and are effectively having to do a full-time job in part-time hours, leading to burnout and reduced motivation. Job redesign has become a growing issue for part-time workers and managers need to realistically review what is possible in shorter hours.
For some employees facing additional risks or responsibilities redeployment might need to be considered so, for instance, they can work remotely.
This requires employers to think creatively about the needs of the organisation and might mean further training is necessary. This could be combined with plans to address skills gaps amid ongoing technological disruption.
Many employers have put mental health at the forefront of COVID-19 response, whether that be in the form of signposting to other external organisations with advice or using mental health ambassadors or first aiders as points of contact, advice and support or using internal social media channels to share information and case studies and to defuse any stigma attached to mental health issues.
Remote workers will need to feel included and may need more regular check-ins than would be necessary in the office because there will not be the kind of informal meetings and chats that people get in offices. Remote working means informal communication that happens in offices needs, to some extent, to be more formalised and deliberate.
During the pandemic, we have seen the extra stress put on parents who are trying to work while looking after children, the added anxiety about children’s safety for key workers having to use nurseries and schools – particularly those with underlying health issues – and the problems faced by parents whose employers refuse to furlough them even though they have no available childcare. Some employees have been placed in virtually impossible situations, having to make incredibly difficult decisions. Some have used up all their annual leave and will have none left to tide them over school holidays until next year.
Others will have used unpaid parental leave. As more people return to work, childcare will be vital, but may not be available or affordable [given many parents have been relying on grandparents to cut costs]. Moreover, parents will need to trust it is safe and definitions of what is safe will vary among parents.
Employers will need to ensure that employees feel able to discuss the issues they are facing and find some sort of workable solution, even if only temporary. That might include a temporary adjustment period, working reduced hours, working different hours, redeployment and job redesign depending on circumstances, advance planning as much as possible about meetings or calls and greater tolerance of a more blurred line between work and life at least for the time being. The best flexible employers are those who know their employees’ circumstances and are able to pre-empt possible problems as much as possible.
The impact of the pandemic and its aftermath will have very different effects on recruitment depending on sectors. Moreover, given underlying skills gaps, particularly with regard to technological skills, and the onward march of automation, new roles are likely to be created.
In order to ensure they reach the widest pool of talent and get the skills they need employers need to think carefully about how they recruit, what language they use, what images they use, the case studies available, which recruitment sites and social media they target and a whole range of other issues. As many companies will still be operating remotely, at least to some degree, they may have to rethink the recruitment, interview and onboarding processes, ensuring that it offers candidates a good experience and conveys their work culture.
As more people will be likely to start work remotely in a new company, employers will need to think about how they assess or develop the kind of skills required by remote workers, such as self-motivation, verbal and written communication skills, autonomy, time management and the ability to collaborate in a virtual environment. The good news is that more remote working will increase the talent pool they can draw from.
In all of this, the role of leaders will be crucial. They should be hands on in the return to work process, acknowledging the challenges faced and charting a way forward as clearly as possible through regular communication as well as role modelling flexible working.
The new normal is likely to last for some months and will require some resilience from managers and staff. Those dealing with extra caring responsibilities, bereavement or mental health issues may need extra support, but the whole workforce will need to be mobilised to look out for themselves and each other in challenging times. Some thought needs to go into how to develop that support in ways that can be adapted by different teams.
workingmums.co.uk is planning a series of webinars for employers on all issues related to the pandemic. More details will be announced soon. And keep in touch with latest developments through our daily news, features and advice service.
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