Nadia Biles Davies looks at the people side of managing a return to the office, including how to manage survivor guilt after redundancy, how to capitalise on new ways of working, and how to win the hearts and minds of a nervous workforce
On 17 July, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, announced the end to the government’s work from home advice as of 1 August, in an attempt to boost a flagging economy suffering from lockdown. This represented a shift in responsibilities for employers. Where government guidance was for everyone to work from home wherever possible, the remit of the employer in enabling and supporting that was clear. From 1 August, the risk shifted, as a return is at the discretion of the employer.
Employment partner at Sharpe Pritchard, Julie Bann, comments, “From an employment law perspective, while the government guidance regarding returning to the workplace has relaxed, the onus is firmly on the employer to provide a ‘COVID-secure’ workplace. From an employee’s perspective, the blame will land firmly on the employer if there is a spike in COVID-related issues in the workplace or an increase in anxiety and mental health concerns relating to a return to work.”
The Law Society has produced a guide to safely returning to the office.
But how can law firms win the hearts and minds of a nervous workforce faced with returning to the office, while capitalising on new ways of working?
Reassure, engage and re-evaluate
There cannot be enough communication about the steps that you are taking to safeguard your workforce at work. This cannot be one-way communication and a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. Ongoing mechanisms need to be in place to listen to concerns and address them so far as is possible.
One of the lessons of lockdown is that the pandemic is a dynamic and evolving situation. Continued news reports of fluctuations in infection rates, the locking down of specific towns and cities and new quarantine rules for European travel are all testament to this.
Anxieties will therefore ebb and flow, and employers should be on hand to address concerns as they arise. A large part of this reassurance will fall on line managers. Firms should ensure that their management team understands the steps that have been taken and why, and provide them with guidance and support to enable them to lead conversations with individuals about their return to work and what that looks like. Managers should be empowered to ‘flex’ arrangements for their team – for example, varying start and finish times to avoid peak travel on public transport. Managers should be aware of the right to request flexible working, and of the processes for considering such requests. A conversation about continued home working presents an opportunity for re-evaluating set up and equipment and setting expectations for supervision and training.
For those that might refuse to return due to heightened anxiety, Julie advises: “Consider alternatives for staff who refuse to return because of COVID-related issues (and not just because they have realised the joy of not commuting), including continuing to work from home, remaining on furlough, a period of leave, using up annual leave, or even a period of unpaid leave.”
Those that return from furlough after many months might well feel especially vulnerable, having seen the firm continue to operate without them for a considerable period of time.
Lucinda Carney, chartered psychologist and founder of Actus people management software cautions: “It is vital to spare a thought for those returning from furlough, particularly if they haven’t had the benefit of a gradual reintroduction using the flexible furlough scheme. Many returning from furlough have commented on a drop in confidence and self esteem. Unlike returning from maternity or even long-term sick, many have taken this status to indicate that their roles are dispensable, and carry deep fears about their future employability. They need support, encouragement, and for their confidence to be rebuilt as they return to the workplace.”
While those still at work have likely gained new skills in working from home, furloughed staff have not. Furloughed staff will be returning to the new normal without having worked in it before. Managers should consider not only additional training, but also mentoring or buddying for those who might struggle with adaptation to a new way of working after significant time off.
For some, lockdown might have felt like a period of time to draw a line under and quietly pack away. One of the challenges operational leaders face is ensuring that the positive changes seen through lockdown continue, and workforces do not revert to bad old habits.
Much of this will be supported by management teams setting out clearly the change that they want to see continue, whether it be increased virtual team communications, webinars or paperless working – essentially, an induction for the new normal.
It is within the gift of leadership to nudge the behaviours they want to see – they could offer refresher training to embed new skills, send scheduled, targeted communications, and make operational nudges, such as reducing printer and photocopier numbers.
Part of this change will involve setting expectations in relation to more flexible working. Firms now inherit a workforce who have been working effectively, efficiently and productively from home. Their new normal does not mean a full-time, desk-bound return to the office. More importantly, firms will have some difficulty refusing formal flexible working requests if flexible working has been tried and tested and is successful.
Carney’s research supports this. “There are two areas of potential risk that leaders should be alert to as we start returning to the workplace. The first is the need to recognise the requirements of this new landscape, both environmentally and in the minds of our people. Simply opening offices back up does not mean that the new ways of working should go by the wayside. In fact, insisting that things simply revert to how they were six months ago is highly likely to be counterproductive, with risks of impact on already fragile levels of wellbeing in many cases. A series of polls carried out by Actus in July 2020 with a sample of 93 people professionals indicated that 63% felt that staff had concerns about the safety of the workplace and 49% wanted to be able to continue working remotely. Further polls emphasised the importance of people feeling trusted to continue to work remotely, with almost 80% linking a high trust environment with high performance. We know that many people have appreciated (and needed) the flexibility of being trusted to work remotely over recent months, and have grown to enjoy the benefits of better work-life balance. Regardless of any health concerns that they may associate with the workplace, a draconian insistence on returning to old styles of working is likely to backfire in terms of engagement, morale and productivity.
“We are in a phase of iterative change, we continue to be on a journey; this is likely to continue for some time, and we must continue to be people centric along the way.”
One impact of the pandemic has been, and still might be, significant redundancies. There is every possibility that individuals will return to a restructured team, missing colleagues without the usual opportunities for goodbyes. Redundancies are painful at the best of times, but in the current climate, many are being implemented in a vacuum.
Jamie Butler, founder and accredited coach at Jamie Butler Coaching comments: “As someone who survived redundancy during a merger process, it’s important for firms not to assume that those who ‘survive’ will necessarily be happy about the outcome or continue to be as motivated, engaged or productive as before. Managers should prepare for this, and talk to returners one-to-one about how they feel, and reassure them (if possible) about the future. It’s often important to re-establish trust, depending on how the process has been handled (or perceived to have been handled). As discussed recently with a couple of coaching clients, communicate clearly and consistently, and welcome any ongoing questions, concerns or emotions. This is yet another moment of change, so help your returners to navigate the transition as effectively as possible.”
Teams need clear communications on the redundancy process and the impact on their role. Managers need to be as open as possible, and that means that they need to be kept informed about what is going on in the firm. Remaining employees will need a clear mandate for what work looks like for them, the support they have, and how they will need to work within any new structure.
For firms keen to support a return to work, it is clear that a people-centric approach is key to getting staff back working in the office as productively and efficiently as possible. This is all the more necessary in the context of emerging from lockdown successfully, and ultimately, profitably.