Given how drastically our working lives have changed over the past year, it’s easy to think that physical office space will rapidly become a relic of the past.
However, while major organisations, including PwC and Facebook, have publicly announced their post-Covid plans to embrace hybrid working, or even allow their staff to work permanently from home, not every company is following suit.
In fact, according to the health and safety software firm Protecting, social distancing requirements may even force an “explosion in office space”, as organisations keen to bring their staff back to work look into renting additional sites.
Preparing for a physical workplace return
The CIPD recommends three key tests for organisations to undertake before inviting their people back to the office; is it essential, is it sufficiently safe, and is it mutually agreed?
If your organisation meets the requirements of these tests, the Health and Safety Executive has published some useful guidance on how to make your workplace Covid-safe as restrictions are eased, including specific risk assessment information.
Some of the measures you could look to implement include one-way systems around the workplace, individual cubicles or partitions, restricting the number of people who can attend in-person meetings, and a regular, enhanced cleaning schedule.
Don’t forget to guide your employees through each of the measures you choose to implement, so there is enough time to prepare, adjust, and answer questions before everyone starts arriving at their desks.
Supporting employees’ return to work concerns
Research from Bupa Health Clinics shows that around 65% of people are anxious about coming back to work, with more than a third expressing concerns about their crowded commute.
So, while making adjustments to your physical working environment is a critical step, you must also make sure that your staff feel mentally supported as they prepare for the big return.
As a starting point, consider that many people will have experienced an intensely challenging year, characterised by a diverse collection of issues that range from serious health concerns and caring responsibilities, to home schooling, financial worries, and in some cases, bereavement.
Along with a confidential, ‘open door’ policy that allows people to share their concerns, if your company offers an Employee Assistance Programme, ensure that everybody understands how and where they can access it.
You could also share advice and resources from mental health charities like Mind, and be ready to refer people for further support if needed.
Answer questions with an empathetic, ‘listen first’ approach
At every stage of the process, actively encourage your employees to ask questions, so that you can answer them in a way that makes them feel safe and confident about coming back to work.
As a general rule, give everybody plenty of time to make new arrangements for things like childcare and caring responsibilities, and if you can, offer staggered start and finish times for work. This will not only help to reduce the number of people in the office at any one time, but could also ease anxieties about ‘rush hour’ commuting.
As well as keeping in regular contact with your staff, you could also create an online information hub, featuring safety updates, mental health tips, and general preparation advice, in the run-up to your opening date.
Don’t be anxious to get back to the “old ways of the office”
Above all else, be as patient as you can, and offer people as much time as they need to re-acclimatise.
The world has changed since we all worked at our desks together, and it’s unlikely that things will go back to exactly how they were anytime soon – if ever.
Your objective should be simply to create a friendly, safe, and purposeful working atmosphere that, as far as possible, makes people look forward to coming back.
The CIPD has published a helpful guide on returning to the workplace as Covid restrictions ease.
If you would like to ask questions, or discuss your organisation’s return to work strategy in further detail, please get in touch.