This Saturday, 4th July, many small and medium businesses across the country will be allowed to reopen and employers will be considering how staff are supported in their return to work. The challenge of re-launching a business in a COVID-secure manner poses obvious logistical, financial and legal challenges. Employers seeking advice on navigating these issues should consult the comprehensive guidance produced by organisations like the CIPD and Acas.
However, there is also a human element to these challenges. Employers need to be careful to protect and support their most valuable resource: their team. What can employers, leadership and management do on a practical level to make reopening as smooth as possible and bring staff back to work securely, but also, contentedly?
This is probably the most important aspect to consider when planning the safe and happy return of your staff to work. There are many ways in which extra opportunities for communication can be introduced into the workplace. Top tips include:
- Prioritise communication and ensure that staff feel listened to. Each employee’s unique circumstances and concerns about returning to work will need to be identified. Ask workers what support they need, remembering to make particular reference to supporting their mental health and wellbeing, and with the aim of reducing workplace stressors.
- Provide a variety of spaces and ways for open communication to take place. Consider introducing organisational updates, team virtual ‘coffee chats’, or one-to-one discussions with line managers before, during and after the return to work to provide the opportunity to address employee concerns. Extra activities that could cultivate team spirit – especially after so long away from the workplace – could help create a well-functioning team where staff feel happy to confide in those around them.
- Make wellbeing and mental health a specific topic on the agenda. You might consider offering some extra training to senior leadership or line managers so that they feel confident discussing these topics and are well-placed to support employee welfare. For example, Public Health England have developed a free Psychological First Aid (PFA) course in response to COVID-19. It equips staff to recognise and support people at risk of distress.
Going the extra mile to address staff’s concerns about the safety of returning to work will demonstrate your commitment to employee welfare and regain the support and trust of your workforce. For example:
- Provide risk assessments (and re-assessments) for all staff including remote workers, and including DSE (display screen equipment) assessments and training. These should be repeated whenever an employee moves to a different working environment.
- You could consider offering COVID testing for employees, in particular antibody tests to detect previous exposure to the virus. This not only shows you care, but also supports operation planning when re-opening the physical workplace.
3) Adapting leadership and management
Aside from taking extra consideration of mental health and carving out more time for communication, those employees in management and leadership roles may need to adapt their behaviour in other ways to fully support their team. Things to bear in mind:
- Managers may need to dedicate more time to serving their teams. This will, by definition, be time-consuming and leadership will need to support them in this to avoid overwhelm.
- It is also important that managers role-model healthy working habits, for example, taking breaks, not working excessively long hours, encouraging open conversation about mental health, having a healthy diet and taking regular exercise both during and outside of the working day.
- Try to discourage presenteeism. This may take some discussion, in particular with remote-workers who may feel an obligation to carry on working when in fact they are not well enough to do so, but is also very important with employees who have recently returned to work after being furloughed, and who may not want to have more time away.
Getting back to work will be a different experience for everyone. Moreover, people will wax and wane through different emotions as the days pass. Apprehension, fear, anxiety and disillusionment will be mixed up with excitement, relief and joy. We’re all facing many unknowns. By facing them collaboratively, with frequent and open communication, we can build trust and give our very best to making it as smooth as possible for everyone.
[These are some of my ideas about bringing a team back to the workplace, based on my own experience. I hope they are helpful, or at least thought-provoking, but they are not meant to be seen as authoritative or exclusive. Please remember to consult the extensive guidance from organisations like CIPD and Acas and seek individual advice if necessary.]