By Nic Redfern, finance director, NerdWallet UK
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted every element of our day-to-day lives; and UK working life has been no exception. Indeed, the majority of UK offices have been closed since late March with half (49%) of employees working from home as of mid-June.
However, hope could be on the horizon; on 17th July, Prime Minister Boris Johnson revealed his blueprint to get the UK back to “normal” by Christmas. Having already issued new health and safety guidelines to help workspaces adapt to the “new normal”, Johnson’s latest announcement indicated a determined push to reopen UK businesses. Naturally, this will mean re-opening office spaces.
At first glance, going back to office life would appear to be a simple task. However, we must not underestimate the complexities of this exercise. Every business will need to develop a thorough strategy to facilitate a safe transition back to office life.
So, the question is, how can employers prepare themselves for the challenge?
Clear lines of communication
Whilst it may seem like an obvious point, the safety and well-being of the workforce should be prioritised by employers. So, while the government guidelines offer a good basis for businesses’ extended health and safety policies, it is also vital to ask employees for their input regarding the new strategy.
There will inevitably be mixed feelings amongst employees about coming back to the office. Indeed, some may be excited to re-join their colleagues, whilst others might be anxious about mingling with numerous people in confined spaces; half (50%) of UK adults are anxious about the prospects of social distancing measures being relaxed, according to KnowYourMoney.co.uk.
So, it is vital that employee concerns are heard. Organising team conference calls or company surveys would be a good start. Not only will this help to ease staff anxieties about coming back to work, but the data will also enable businesses to maximise their resources to best suit the needs of their staff. Creating a healthy and happy workforce prior to re-opening the office will help to ensure the longevity of an organisation.
Extend existing policy
Once consultations with the workforce have taken place, business leaders will be able to allocate their resources effectively to upgrade current health and safety policies.
For many organisations, this will involve putting social distancing measures in place. After all, recent research from recruitment consultancy Robert Half revealed that the majority (56%) of employees felt anxious about being sat too close to their colleagues.
This will mean different things for different offices. For some, it will require a physical restructuring of their space; perhaps involving getting rid of some desks or open plan meeting areas. Additionally, organisations may need to invest in larger desks or protective screens to ensure employees feel safe enough to remain at work for long durations of time.
Office hygiene will also play a much larger part in office health and safety policy moving forward. Whilst the majority of offices will receive daily cleaning services, some may consider introducing weekly deep cleans – or a service to that effect. Even seemingly small actions like placing hand sanitiser stations around the office could play a key role in new health and safety initiatives.
Staggering staff returns
Perhaps the most difficult element of reopening the office is planning the logistics of staff returns. By this, I mean deciding how and when employees can be invited back to the office.
For many businesses, a staggered approach would be advisable. After all, bringing all employees back at once would be counterproductive in easing staff anxieties.
The next consideration is which teams to invite back first. Of course, each organisation will have its own organisational priorities; that said, it would be a good idea to start by bringing in smaller teams – like marketing, accounts or sales – for a few days a week. This will help businesses to review and amend their office layout, in accordance to how best they think can cater to their staff’s needs.
Indeed, some organisations may find it more cost effective to keep staff working from home for the foreseeable future; particularly if productivity hasn’t fallen throughout the pandemic. Whatever is decided, employees should be kept in the loop with the businesses’ approach throughout the entire process. This will enable staff to voice any concerns they might have, allowing the organisation to adapt and adjust their approach accordingly.
Stepping into the “new normal”
Ultimately, there is no one-model approach for businesses preparing to reopen their offices.
Some businesses, for example, may require a complete overhaul of the layout of their office space, whilst others might decide the need to look for a completely new, larger space to cater to the social distancing needs of staff. Others may decide to keep staff working from home for the foreseeable future, especially if business productivity has not dropped and the workforce are happy to do so. Every business is different and will therefore require a different strategy.
What is essential, however, is that employers don’t rush into any major decisions. Taking a calm and considered approach will not only limit the anxiety felt amongst staff at the thought of returning to work, but it will also ensure that the organisation will be able to adapt and thrive in the “new normal.”