Getting Back to Office 05/05/2020

Five Steps to Support your Employees’ Return to Work

At some point, hopefully in the near future, many UK businesses are going to start to tell their employees it’s time to return to work. It is therefore important that companies start to prepare now and make sure that they have the necessary arrangements in place for their workforce.

Once the UK restrictions are lifted, it is likely that we will see certain industries reopening before others. Carmakers Jaguar Land Rover and Aston Martin, and housebuilders Taylor Wimpey and Persimmon Homes have already announced that they have restarted work with new safety and social distancing measures in place. Jaguar Land Rover, will reopen with 25% of its workforce returning at first, introducing employees back into the workplace slowly, rather than everyone returning at once. Adopting a gradual transition should help to maintain social distancing in the early days and will be less daunting for employees who are likely to be anxious about returning to the workplace.

Employees will understandably be experiencing high levels of anxiety around coronavirus, including a fear of becoming ill and the social and economic impact of that, should it happen. This will have an impact on the health of employees and, given that anxiety is conductive, it is advisable that employers take steps to ensure that they reduce the symptoms of coronavirus anxiety when employees start to return to work. Here are five steps that you should plan and implement:

Step 1: Make sure company protocols are clear and accessible

Anxious employees will tend to focus on problems before they’ve happened. Returning to work is likely to cause uncertainties amongst employees, such as:

  • Should I travel on public transport?
  • Do I need to wear a mask if I go out?
  • Should I go into work or self-isolate?
  • If I go into work, is it OK for me to touch materials that other employees have touched?
  • How often do I need to wash my hands and use hand sanitiser if I go into work?

As a company, you should share actionable steps on what employees can do to protect themselves and what to do if they feel unwell. Making sure that company health protocols are clear and accessible should help to rationalise the issue, keeping employees informed on the steps that they can take to stay hygienic and what to do if they are feeling unwell.

Tip: Share the latest health guidelines and updates on the virus with employees but avoid overwhelming them with too many or sharing distressing news.

Step 2: Make sure you have hygiene measures in place

According to health guidelines, we should be regularly washing our hands, using hand sanitiser and disposable hand towels. You therefore need to ensure that you are stocked up so that there are plenty of supplies for all to use. Supporting employees to stay as hygienic as possible in a busy office will help to reduce their anxiety.

Step 3: Reduce employee contact with others where possible

Much of the stress and anxiety around the coronavirus is from employees who are concerned about where they may contract it, such as on their commute to work or in the office.

Make suitable adjustments to combat this where possible, such as remote working and putting unnecessary travel on hold. This will become essential if known cases of the virus are announced in your company or become known in your area.

Plan to avoid further distress by supporting employees in setting up a suitable home working environment. Provide the equipment that they need, such as a computer and ergonomic furniture, to make sure that they can comfortably work from home.

For those companies that have been able to operate with their employees working from home, you may look to extend this until employees are comfortable to return, using their own judgement.

Step 4: Tailor according to individual circumstances

Remember that one size doesn’t fit all so employees should be treated according to their individual circumstances. Some will have children and caring responsibilities so they will be restricted by schools reopening and services going back to ‘normal’. There will also be those who rely on public transport and may need to follow guidelines around when they can travel. Some employees will be classed as ‘high risk’ as they may fall within a certain age bracket or have underlying health conditions. These employees should be encouraged to continue working remotely where possible.

For those who are working remotely, they can experience feelings of loneliness and isolation. It is therefore essential that you stay connected with these employees, introducing virtual spaces where teams can collaborate and socialise. This will help their wellbeing and resilience.

Step 5: Provide employees with coping mechanisms

Many employees will experience distress and anxiety around the virus, especially when someone that they know or love is suffering with it. As well as having company policies in place, it is also recommended that you implement coping mechanisms for employees.

For those who are continuously displaying signs of anxiety, they should be encouraged to seek further support through employee assistance programmes (EAPs). These programmes provide counselling and mental health support for employees.

Tip: Consider inviting an expert in to your company to give a talk on managing and coping with coronavirus anxiety. This will help those who are apprehensive about returning to and/or being at work and confiding in their employers about their worries.

Many companies and their employees are keen to get back to the office as quickly as possible, but employers must recognise the moral risk of doing so too early as it could have detrimental reputational consequences.

The return to work effort in the UK is much more likely to be a gradual process, rather than setting a national ‘return to the office’ day. Companies that return employees gradually demonstrate a commitment to reducing the impact on their employees’ health and wellbeing and providing a safe workplace.

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