Practical tips for returning to the office

WHEN the pandemic hit, most businesses had little choice but to send their workforce home. Where possible, employees reverted to working remotely, catching up with colleagues via video technology. In areas such as hospitality, beauty and retail, entire teams were placed on furlough as the shutters came down indefinitely on their workplaces.

But as we take tentative steps on the path out of lockdown, the feeling is that many aspects of life have changed forever – including how and where we work.

A recent poll on LinkedIn suggested there is little appetite for returning to the office 9-5, five days a week. Having had a taste of remote working, albeit one that was imposed on them by circumstances, many employees are looking to split their working week between home and the office.

The lure of a more flexible working day – and ultimately a better work/life balance – has persuaded many to request that when they do return to the office, they do so for only part of the week.

Reasons to return

When remote working suddenly became the norm in March last year, there was much discussion about what people missed most about working in the office. Some elements were obvious – they missed their colleagues, the banter, the camaraderie – while others were unexpected. The much-maligned commute had acted as a cut-off point between work and home life; now the boundaries between the two were becoming blurred. Even making a cuppa for colleagues had provided a break from the computer screen and the opportunity to stretch your legs.

Creatives in particular missed the opportunity to bounce ideas off their colleagues; for others, communication as a whole lacked cohesion. Where once you might pop your head round the door to ask a question, emails had to be sent, a Zoom call arranged or conference calls set up.

Businesses in some sectors became fractured when office staff switched to remote working while manufacturing teams remained on the shop floor.

The way staff training and development took place also pivoted. Overnight, face to face training courses were cancelled and replaced with online webinars – many of which were offered free of charge.

And while opportunities to upskill were available, the chances of earning a promotion while working remotely may have suffered. Working at home rather than under the watchful eye of the boss left some employees feeling that their chances to impress and ultimately of promotion had suffered a setback.

This underlines the importance of HR policies that include regular assessments such as appraisals or one-to-ones in place – these can be carried out online to ensure nobody’s chance of promotion is jeopardised.

A smooth transition

While the legislation on flexible working existed before the pandemic, there has been a pronounced cultural shift since lockdown began.

If an employee wants to work from home, they can request flexible working – and employers need a business reason to refuse that request. Given that millions have worked successfully from home for the past 12 months, the end result is likely to involve a compromise. For instance, an employer can ask you to attend a client meeting in the office but working from home for a set number of days can be agreed.

Today, refusing to consider a request to work remotely seems out of kilter. As discussed in a previous blog, even if there are concerns about an employee’s performance, these can be addressed remotely.

Key to a smooth return to the workplace is establishing expectations and discussing concerns. The importance of open communication is clear and employers should explain what safety measures have been introduced, consider if adjustments can be made to reduce the risk of transmission and carry out risk assessments before employees return.

Practical issues to consider include ensuring screens are in place and that there is adequate spacing between desks.

Some firms have recruited during lockdown so will need to ensure there is space to accommodate all employees. It may even be necessary to bring in a hot-desking policy or to have people in on different days to make the safest use of office space.

Others may decide to turn their back on offices altogether, embracing remote working on a permanent basis and using a hub for occasional meetings or get-togethers.

Nobody assumes things will automatically resume to how they were pre-Covid. However, staying connected, addressing employee concerns and communicating expectations clearly will help to achieve a smoother transition from remote to office working.

If you are unsure on how best to achieve this, engaging some external HR support can help you through the process. Contact us here