Time to Read: 5 minutes
The coronavirus pandemic has presented unprecedented and unique challenges to organisations as they struggle to keep services open and to be productive. With no other global pandemics of this scale in the last century, there is no FM or HR playbook or British standard to refer to. It really is unknown territory for each and every one of us as we look to the Return to Work.
For a long time the focus of most businesses has been on keeping staff safe and productive during the pandemic. However, we are now seeing a significant shift in both government and corporate thinking to what is being termed the “return to work” #returntowork or – more appropriately – the “return to the workplace” (as many have already been working from home very happily and productively).
Here at BakerStuart we have been working closely with Sky and BT since the start of the pandemic; helping keep their critical facilities open and staff safe. In addition, we are currently advising several other organisations, such as RIBA, to help with and support the gradual reopening of their offices. This has given us an interesting and valuable insight and long-term perspective of some of the challenges faced by different organisations and how those have evolved over time.
There are many issues to address, and things organisations need to consider when deciding when, how and on what scale to reopen their buildings. In our next few blogs we would like to share with you some of our experienes and the insight gained to give you some ideas on how to go about preparing your offices and staff for a return to the workplace and for the long term post Covid future of work.
The Shift in Focus from Working from Home to the Return to Work
The typical response to the pandemic by organisations is going through three distinct phases:
- Initial response to the virus – closure of offices to all but essential staff and introduction of home working where possible
- The return to the workplace – a gradual opening up of offices for the return of some or all staff, at least part time
- The future of work – using the seismic shift in attitudes to working more flexibly that we have seen during the pandemic to fundamentally change the relationship with the office, maximising benefits to both staff and the organisation.
Having witnessed a major focus on phase one during lockdown, over the past two months we have seen many businesses preparing their offices for the return of their people to their regular workplace. This is presenting some very unique issues and challenges to building & office managers, FMs and HR professionals alike.
Approaches vary, but generally fall into several categories:
- A full return to work, with workplaces open and all staff returning at least part time (often on a rota system).
- Some or all workplaces open for those staff that are able to, and willing to, return to the office. Some managers have then implemented their own ad-hoc rota system to improve staff collaboration.
- Limited opening of the workplace for designated essential staff only and in some cases for other staff members for whom home working is problematic.
- To continue with a blanket organisation wide stay at home policy. Many organisations are taking a “wait and see approach” until at least the new year.
Beyond the Return to Work, The Future Office
Some organisations are now starting to move towards the third phase and think about the long term; whether the change in attitudes to both home and flexible working by staff and managers alike can be locked in and act as a paradigm shift in how we work going forward. Indeed, as the preparation to make your workplaces Covid-secure are quite costly and time consuming, there is some merit in considering a move directly to your future post pandemic working model.
Fundamental questions need to be answered in order to facilitate this, such as;
- What is our future way of working?
- How much home working do we allow?
- What will the role of the office be in future – merely a place for people to come together and collaborate?
- Do we even need an office at all?
We will explore the future world of work in forthcoming blogs.
One thing is certain; every organisation, the products and services they deliver, and the staff who work for them is different. It is important to find the right approach for your own organisation that balances the risks to the individual with risks to the survival of the business and delivery of services.
So what is the right option for your return to work?
In determining the right course of action, a balanced view is critical. Undertake a review of the implications and risks of opening up your offices to some or all of your people against the implications of continued home working. Risk assessments are vital, and a number of a factors need to be considered when developing your strategy. Some things to consider are:
- How effective has home working been? If you are still productive as an organisation and able to deliver your products and services to meet customer need, then home working is the safest option for your people. Do you need to reopen at all during the pandemic? Is there an opportunity to reduce overheads, potentially significantly?
- There has been a sea change in attitudes to home / remote working by staff and managers alike. A vast majority of those who are working from home have found it productive and want to continue to work from home at least part time in the future. Research published in August supported this, and showed that the majority of people found working from home not to be challenging particularly when job roles were supported by technology and could continue remotely.
- How will your staff get into the office? Public transport is a major risk factor and area of concern / anxiety – especially in major cities. Consider staggering arrival hours to allow people to travel when transport is less busy. This will also help with congestion at arrival points in your buildings
- Many staff have cited the lack of a commute and the ability to focus on the tasks at hand as major benefits to working from home and they often felt more productive as a result.
However, on the flip side:
- Recent surveys have shown there is a steady increase in the desire to return and anxiety levels are falling. As the pandemic wears on more and more people see the benefit of at least a part time return to the office; a Gallup poll showed the desire to work remotely as much as possible dropped from initial levels at the start of lockdown of 62% to 53% by May.
- Not all staff are able to work from home effectively. This can be due to personal circumstances, job role, training and development needs, or even their personality and preferred ways of working.
- Although people are becoming very adept at Zoom / MS Teams calls, face to face will, for the foreseeable future, be the most effective medium for collaboration.
- Home working is undeniably causing mental health issues for some, with the sense of isolation, the lack of social interaction and difficulties in accessing informal peer support cited as key contributors to this, particularly as time moves on.
Other important things to consider and factor into your strategy are:
- How can you minimise the risk of transmission of the virus if one of your people is contagious? Can you reduce the risk of widespread infection by keeping people in team bubbles thereby minimising cross team or inter floor working? Could you consider restricting staff to having access to the office only on certain days?
- How will you implement track and trace should a staff member be symptomatic or test positive so you can alert all who may have come into contact with them?
- Staff may wish to return to the office, but does it have to be their old office? Do you have other facilities that can be turned into local hubs or could you use local co working spaces? Both options enable staff to come together in smaller numbers to escape the home environment, and to collaborate without the previous long or risky commutes?
Reassuring Your People is vital
On a final note, whichever approach you take the most important thing is safety of your people and providing reassurance that your approach is well considered and appropriate for them and the organisation. One mantra we use when developing Covid-19 return to work strategies is that it “is safe and appears safe”.
If you want to encourage staff back to the office the steps you are taking need to be very visible and clearly communicated so people understand what measures are in place for their safety and what is expected of them. The measures should include:
- Clear rules – people need to know what they should and shouldn’t do. Your policy should be distilled down into clear rules and guidelines. Ensure all of your people have read and understood them.
- Clear signage and way finding – reinforce the rules with clear signage in your buildings, such as reminding them of the specific rules for that area / circumstance, which desks / areas can be used, when and where they should wear masks and how to circulate within the space.
- Visible measures – make the steps you are taking very visible. For example, if you have enhanced cleaning regimes let your people know and even ensure the cleaners are visible during the day. Thermometers and temperature taking in entry points can also provide visible reassurance.
- Clear guidance – provide very clear guidance to staff and managers on what to do if they become symptomatic, and ensure you have a track and trace mechanism in place that captures who was in at the same time as the infected person.
Remember that “Communication is King”. Despite what you read about the anti-maskers, the overwhelming majority of people want to stay safe and want to do their bit to keep their colleagues safe. Make it easy for them!
We will be publishing further thoughts and guidance on how to prepare your workplace for the #returntowork / #returntotheworkplace and the #futureofwork post-pandemic over the next few weeks. If you would like some help or further guidance in the meantime, then please contact Gemma Gardner, Sarah Moore, Toby Godman or Colin Stuart on 020 3743 8400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition we are conducting a free #returntowork staff survey with several organisations to get both useful insight and data on a general multi organisation level, but also to help individual organisations who take part to develop their own specific return to work strategies based on evidence – what your people really think and want. We would be more than happy to include your organisation in the study – please contact us for further details.
About the Author: Colin Stuart is the founding Director of Baker Stuart, and has more than 25 years experience in workplace analytics and consultancy. With a passion for creating spaces that work for people but based on evidence not conjecture, Colin is hoping we can see some positives come out of the pandemic and a shift in attitudes towards the need for more flexible workplaces.
About Baker Stuart: We are an independent specialist consultancy providing a comprehensive range of innovative workplace strategy, workplace management and change, move management, project management and programme management services. Thinking about optimising your organisation? Get in touch with us here.