Whilst coronavirus restrictions have resulted in many being furloughed and businesses being closed, for others there was a move from the office to home working. In this article it is the latter that we’re focusing on.
At the time of updating this a national lockdown is in place with everyone who can work from home being required to work from home. There is hope for the vaccine during 2021, at some point it is expected that lockdown restrictions will ease once again and people will return to offices.
Many organisations have already announced plans to continue remote working indefinitely, with some enforcing it and reducing premises costs, whilst others are keeping it as an option. On the other hand, cafes and shops are calling for a return to the office as their business model is based on the habits of commuters and inner city working.
Should you bring people back into the office?
The answer to this question will be personal to your business. Start with questioning why are you bringing people back? Is it essential they are in the office? If so, what makes it essential? Is that essential all the time or some of the time?
Coming back into the office doesn’t need to be all or nothing. A mix of homeworking and office working may be more beneficial than either all remote or all office based.
Is it safe to bring people back? This isn’t just “can we locate desks 2 meters apart?” - it must consider individual circumstances. How are people arriving at the office? Do you want all your employees travelling on different public transport then joining together? What about individuals who have been shielding or are shielding others in their homes?
What do your people think and feel? This pandemic has affected people in so many different ways - communication is crucial to understanding different points of view. Ideally seek to reach agreement with individuals rather than unilaterally impose rules upon people. Particularly if people have been working from home for many months, you’ll need to explain why it is now essential they perform their role in the office.
COVID secure - what does this mean?
Employers are responsible for the health and safety of their employees, if you are bringing people back into the workplace it must be safe. What this means will depend upon your industry. There are government guidelines on working during coronavirus and HSE have published guides and advice.
Risk assessments are essential. These only need to be in writing if you have 5 or more employees, however even with less than 5 they will help reassure employees of the actions you are taking.
Consider not only physical health but also mental health. The impacts on mental health of the lockdown and remote working have been well reported, both positive and negative. Easing of lockdown and return to work may increase feelings of anxiety for some whilst easing them for others. Some will have seen benefits of reduced commuting and worry about losing those benefits. Discussing and reaching agreement with individuals will help to reduce anxieties.
What are the potential problems of a return to the office?
Returning to the office does not mean a return to normal as there continue to be risks associated with coronavirus.
Consider the risk of all or a number of your workforce all becoming ill at one time. Many organisations that do require people to be on-site are using bubble systems. This keeps people in smaller groups as it is not just the risk of becoming ill but also self-isolation as a result of contact. Using small groups and avoiding contact with those not in your group/bubble will reduce the chances of all employees being taken out of action at one time.
Particularly if you are planning a complete return to the office, plan for eventualities such as the needs of an individual to self-isolate, feeling unwell or local lockdowns. Are people able to revert back to homeworking in these circumstances? Is the business and individuals prepared for homeworking if this is required at short notice? What are the implications of moving into the office and back out to homes at short notice?
Childcare continues to be a problem for many and therefore a problem for business. Even when schools were open, what that actually means varies from school to school, with some having shorter days and staggered starts and finishes (further impacting those with multiple children). In some areas before and after school clubs are either not reopening or not saying either way. This will prevent parents coming back to the office. This is not normal circumstances where alternative childcare is readily available. Even once schools are open, parents may find themselves facing local shutdowns if there is an outbreak in a particular school or area.
Employers must be careful not to discriminate. Indirect discrimination includes rules that are applied to all but have a detrimental impact on one or more group. A requirement to return to the office is likely to have a negative impact on parents and those with disabilities.
Employers may face an increase in flexible working requests where individuals have found they like homeworking and want to continue or may need to reduce hours to accommodate childcare issues. It is important to recognise requests as the statutory right to request and consider the request full. See our guide on flexible working requests for more information.
How can you make a return to the office work?
Communication and planning are crucial to making a return to the office successful. Only bring people back where it is either necessary for the company or their choice to return.
Don’t expect people to turn up on day one as if nothing happened. Managers should be having individual discussions focused on well-being. Consider individual circumstances and agree a way forward that works for both parties.
Make plans to accommodate future lockdowns, self-isolation and other situations that may prevent individuals or groups getting to the office. Consider the use of bubbles to reduce the risk of all employees having to self-isolate or becoming ill at one time.
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Article last updated: 12 January 2021
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