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How to prepare your offices for people returning to work

The global Covid-19 pandemic drastically altered the working landscape almost overnight. Businesses of all sizes were forced to implement huge organisational changes at rapid pace, including the adoption of company-wide homeworking and in many cases, the furloughing of employees. 

As lockdown measures are lifted, businesses will once again have to navigate their way through uncharted territory as they welcome staff back and both employers and employees will need to adapt to a style of working that is likely to look quite different to before.

Health and safety
Government guidelines have given businesses a glimpse of what to expect, but it will be down to individual employers to carry out a risk assessment and take steps to safeguard their employees.

Measures should include regular handwashing; the use of hand sanitiser; disposing of waste; the thorough cleaning of high touch points such as door handles and shared surfaces; and setting clear guidance for toilet use. Positive signage around the office about the enhanced hygiene practices will encourage everyone to follow the guidance.

Making space
Employers also need to consider how they’ll overcome the challenge of limiting physical contact, with two in five workers expressing concern about not being able to socially distance themselves from colleagues at work.

This could mean changes to the layout of the workspace, including the spacing of desks, the use of partitions, sitting employees back-to-back and implementing one-way systems, as well as changes to working patterns such as adjusted working hours, remote working, staggered start and finish times as well as the division of employees into separate teams.

For some employees who have been furloughed or have adjusted to working from home, this sudden change in routine could be unsettling, so employers should make sure employees understand what is being asked of them and how the new measures will help protect them.  

Mental wellbeing
While physical health has been at the forefront of this current crisis, businesses must also recognise the profound impact it has had upon employees’ mental wellbeing. All employees will have been affected by lockdown, but their personal experiences will have differed.

Furloughed employees may have been concerned about job security, while those who continued working could feel a sense of resentment and burnout. Some employees might be feeling anxious about their own health and others may have lost someone close to them.

It is essential that businesses treat their employees with sensitivity and empathy and understand that the events of the past few months may have shifted people’s priorities and the way they view work.

Ask questions
A ‘Return to Work’ survey, asking employees questions around how they’ve found homeworking, how they feel about a return to work and how they plan to travel to work, is a great way to understand individual needs, concerns and motivations and can help a business to craft its re-onboarding strategy.
Importantly, employees should feel listened to and the key to this is consistent and open communication, including regular and honest discussions and one-to-ones.

Scheduling HR drop-in sessions are also a great way to allow people to express any concerns or questions they may have. While businesses may not know the answer to every question, it is important that they share what they do know and what they are working towards.

Employees are likely to have good and bad days on their return and managers need to be mindful of the way they communicate with their teams and remind them of the support available. Businesses should use this opportunity to review their wellbeing strategies, ensuring they’re still fit for purpose.

Sense of belonging
A sense of belonging is critical to a business’ success, with research showing that it leads to a 56% increase in job performance. 

But it’s unlikely that the vibrant, collaborative cultures that many businesses have worked hard to create can return to the way they were before this crisis. Employees won’t be able to bump into people in the office or easily establish informal networks. This will be particularly challenging for new joiners or employees who have been furloughed over the past four months.

Increase communication
To ensure that everyone still feels like an integral part of the business, leaders need to increase their employee communication. Furloughed employees should be brought up to speed on what work has taken place, as well as changes to the business, client base and individual tasks, while teams should be encouraged to enjoy a virtual coffee, lunch or even after-work drinks if they can’t be together in person to help boost morale and connection.

Managers should remember to express their gratitude and celebrate the small wins. Even a simple thank you can help employees feel more valued and foster a greater sense of engagement and belonging.

Future proof
Similarly, some people may find returning to work more challenging and take a while to settle into the new ways of working. In order to capture their sense of belonging, employees need to feel that they are contributing to the business. Therefore, setting short-term goals will give people a reason to stay motivated and by continuing to dedicate time to individual progress and development, managers can make a huge difference to how people feel about their role and the wider business.

Ultimately, how leaders communicate and treat their employees during the return to work phase will have lasting implications for the business. Those who prioritise their employees’ wellbeing and happiness now will reap the rewards in the future.

Written by Holly Evans, HR consultant at JourneyHR

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