Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Current government advice states that people should work from home if they can, across the UK, although guidance in England is set to change on 19 July. Of course, a great many people have been at their workplace throughout the pandemic, owing to the nature of their job. But many senior managers are now thinking about opening up offices to facilitate collaboration and communication – with expectations ranging from full-time office work to the occasional drop-in.
How can you best prepare employees for this return to the office, while listening to their concerns? And what exactly are the upcoming changes to the regulations? Let’s dive in and find out.
What’s going to happen next with restrictions?
That’s the million dollar question! Of course, if there’s one thing we’ve learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s never to be complacent about restrictions lifting. Currently, each of the devolved nations has a different approach to revising guidance:
- England: almost all restrictions expected to lift on 19 July
- Wales: measures will be reviewed on 15 July
- Scotland: major restrictions expected to be lifted on 9 August
- NI: some restrictions have been lifted with more to follow
However, there’s scant detail about what the next stage means for workplaces. At the time of writing, these questions remain unanswered:
- Will people in Wales, Scotland and NI still be asked to work from home if they can?
- Will social distancing still be required in workplace settings, where possible?
- Will workplaces be required to maintain ‘COVID-secure’ practices?
- Will lateral flow tests continue to be available for all adults?
Regardless of the legal restrictions, employees will have understandable concerns and questions of their own. Many organisations are planning to continue with a remote or hybrid model, potentially on a permanent basis. With that in mind, it’s critical that a return to the office is managed sensitively and proactively – and that those working from home are not left behind.
Although we don’t have any firm promises, it’s looking likely that social distancing requirements could be lifted soon (particularly in England). Does that mean you should remove all those lovingly-placed two-metre markers, and get back to normal? It’s a difficult question and one that many senior managers and HR departments are grappling with. A gradual approach will help ease employee anxieties about coming back to the office, and maintaining distance between desks is one way to achieve this – fairly easy if your organisation is adopting a hybrid approach, but more challenging if everyone is expected back full-time. Maintaining good hand hygiene is also an easy habit to stick with.
One simple measure that is easy to adopt is ensuring good ventilation in the office. Over time, it’s become very clear that this is a critical way to reduce transmission of COVID-19. Make sure all the windows are open (and if you work in a space where this isn’t possible, check that the air conditioning units are set to bring in as much outside air as they can). Of course, you’ll need to warn your colleagues to bring an extra layer or two!
In terms of practical steps to take, you might consider requiring all employees to take a twice-weekly rapid lateral flow test (current guidance recommends that all adults do this, although it is voluntary). If the outcome of your risk assessment indicates this measure would reduce risk significantly, you are within your rights to mandate this. Bear in mind though that vaccination is not compulsory, and employers can’t insist on it (except in very specific circumstances).
Social contact between employees is a more difficult topic to approach as restrictions continue to ease, and is also very dependent on the social culture of your workplace. If you had an office full of hugging enthusiasts in February 2020, you may well find that people are eager to get back to that. However, there are likely to be many team members who aren’t comfortable with hugs (or even handshakes) at this stage. It’s your responsibility to think about this in advance, and either lay out ground rules clearly or ensure that people feel comfortable expressing their preference. One way to do this is to lead by example: if senior members of staff make it clear that they will keep their distance unless invited closer, other employees are more likely to follow suit.
Keeping the team informed
Whatever approach you choose, making sure that all employees have a clear understanding of expectations is key. Leaving things up to chance is likely to cause tension, and may result in vulnerable or worried colleagues feeling that they don’t matter.
One way to ensure staff are kept up-to-date is to create a short elearning course containing everything they need to know: how you’re reducing risk, what they are expected to do, and how they can raise any concerns. There are a few advantages to using elearning:
- You can present information in an engaging, interactive way (so it’s more likely to be remembered)
- Enrolling staff in a course using a Learning Management System (LMS) allows you to see who has viewed the content (and send reminders to those who haven’t)
- Learner data can help you demonstrate that all staff have been informed of any changes (to show compliance)
We’ve created an example course about returning to the office to inspire you, in conjunction with our business support partners Circle2Success. It covers everything your staff need to know about what to expect as they come back to the workplace, and lays out their responsibilities clearly.
Nimble LMS customers can access this course for free, and have full editing capability (because it’s highly unlikely it will match your requirements exactly!).
Avoiding a two-tier system
While some organisations are adopting a fully-remote approach, most will be finding the balance between distributed work and time in the office. There’s a general consensus emerging that some types of work are better suited to being physically present together, such as collaborative and creative meetings or projects. However, it’s important to consider that some employees simply won’t have the space to work in their own home (or may be unsafe there due to abuse or unsuitable living conditions). Think carefully about how your organisation can support those who would prefer to attend the workplace full-time.
When some staff are in the office and others are at home (or in a coworking space, coffee shop or anywhere else!) it’s all too easy for the remote workers to get forgotten when it comes to communication. How often have you had a casual chat with a colleague to clarify something, or shouted across the office to make a decision quickly? These kinds of informal communication are powerful – but they can also exclude team members who aren’t physically present.
It’s important that staff record key decisions in a place where all colleagues can access the information. This might be a channel on an internal messaging system (like Slack or Teams), a record in collaborative project management software (like Trello, Monday or Airtable), or a shared online document (on Google Docs or Office 365). Having a clear policy and process in place, and reinforcing expectations regularly, will help to keep everyone up-to-date.
Being out of the loop isn’t the only concern for remote employees; they also have proximity bias to contend with. Research has shown that staff who are simply seen more frequently in the office are more likely to be judged as ‘dependable’ or ‘committed’ by managers. This effect may not be deliberate, but it is real –and line managers should be aware of it when evaluating the performance of employees.
Looking to the future
Regardless of legal restrictions, your organisation is unlikely to return to ‘normal’ any time soon – and this has given many leaders the opportunity to consider if they really want to go back. For most of us, remote and hybrid working will now be a permanent feature; 85% of working adults would prefer to work from home at least some of the time, according to a May 2021 ONS survey.
Returning to the office will be an exciting change for some employees, but a worrying time for others; providing clear support and expectations can help smooth the transition. And combining remote and office work has its own challenges for maintaining communication and equality between colleagues. Let’s just hope that coming to the office with a cold is firmly relegated to the past!
P.S. Don’t forget you can access a free example course about returning to the office here.