Returning to work after covid-19

Returning to Work after Covid-19

If your business is planning on returning to work after the covid-19 lock down, there are a number of things you need to consider for a successful return. Three key points to consider before devising your plan to return:

  • Is it essential?
  • Is it safe?
  • Is it mutually agreeable with your staff?

If the answer to all three is YES! then you are ready to begin to create your return to work strategy.

Re-engaging with and reintroducing furloughed employees

For employees that have been furloughed, the challenges of returning to work go beyond struggling to remember passwords, trawling through hundreds of emails to identify the three that are of importance and taking a couple of days to get back into ‘work mode’. It’s not the same as if they have been on holiday for 2 weeks!

There will be a sense of apprehension, having had a long period of time away from the workplace, a potential loss of confidence in their capabilities, feeling out of the loop and adapting back to ‘working life’ as well as possible concerns around working from home or returning to the workplace with child care commitments. In addition to this, some employees may be feeling resentful at being furloughed whilst others may be experiencing guilt that colleagues worked whilst they did not. Many will also be fearful of the risk of redundancy.

The key things to consider for these employees is:

  • Have you written to them to formally end their period of furlough and the agreed amendment to their terms and conditions of employment?
  • Have you thought about those who were on probation before being furloughed and how this will be addressed upon their return?
  • Have you considered re-training or refresher training for returning staff? Not only on the new health and safety aspects but also on systems and processes that may be different or may have been forgotten?
  • Have you issued your Covid-19 risk assessment prior to return and answered any queries or challenges to this?
  • Have you considered if un-furloughed staff may be better to work from home upon their return?

Onboarding furloughed employees

For businesses to successfully survive this current crisis, great care should be taken when reintroducing furloughed employees back into the workplace, whether remotely or physically coming back to their place of work. Taking an approach similar to that taken when employees return from a long absence e.g. maternity/paternity leave, long term illness or sabbatical may help.

Key areas to consider are:

  • Giving sufficient time for the individual to settle in
  • Equip your managers with the tools to support their teams
  • Giving reassurance that their safety and wellbeing are top priorities
  • Creating a new sense of belonging
  • Considering changes to working hours and/or practices

Giving sufficient time for the individual to settle in

It takes on average 3 months for a new joiner to start to feel settled within their new role and whilst it is unlikely to take this long for returning furloughed employees, businesses (and managers) should be prepared for individuals to take a number of weeks to become fully productive and comfortable in their role.

To ease the transition ensure your managers:

  • Regularly check in with the individual, giving the individual the opportunity to discuss their wellbeing and ask questions
  • Set realistic, short term objectives/tasks where possible to give both focus and a sense of accomplishment
  • Ask employees what you can do as an employer and/or manager to make the transition easier
  • Make training available (refresher or new) and where possible, in a format that can be easily accessed e.g. eLearning, guides, webinars
  • Consider using annual leave to enable a phased return

Equip your managers with the tools to support their teams

Managers will be key to successfully reintroducing furloughed employees at all levels of your business. Ensuring managers have access to the right information (from Employee Assistance Programmes to business/department objectives), the right technology to manage teams remotely as well as ensuring they understand flexible working options. and access to HR advice is vital in supporting their needs and helping them support the needs of their teams.

Working from home

The government has been quite clear, that anybody who can work from home should do so. However, as a business you also need to weigh up the business requirements for those roles you need to have back in the workplace and those who can begin to or continue to work from home.

Things to cover:

  • Have you ensured those working from home or starting to work from home have done home working risk assessments?
  • Have you given reasonable notice to those you require to return to the workplace?
  • Have you addressed any concerns raised by employees regarding returning to work?
  • Have you updated your Health & Safety policy to cover matters relating to working from home?

Considering changes to working hours and/or practices

Many employees who have been furloughed have established new routines that may not reflect traditional working hours and businesses may need to adapt to stay successful. From changing hours and working locations to moving from a time based/presentism mindset to an outcome based approach, all are becoming a reality that businesses face. Things businesses could consider adapting include:

  • Introducing core working hours (e.g. 10:00 – 14:00) and enabling individuals to flex their hours around this
  • Consider rotating furloughed workers in similar roles where returning all employees is not an option
  • Consideration of working from home, even for roles that are operational (perhaps one day a month to catch up on admin or project work)
  • Short term working to reintroduce employees to the workplace whilst reducing salary costs
  • Look at flexible furloughing staff so they return in a limited capacity

The effort placed in ensuring furloughed staff return to an environment that gives them time to re-adjust, provides adequate support, keeps them safe and creates a sense of belonging will impact a business’s bottom line and both business leaders and managers are essential in ensuring success.

Communal areas

Areas such as break-out rooms, toilets and kitchens should all provide hand washing facilities and information but should also be limited to use one person at a time. It would be a good idea to think about preventing use of communal facilities such as a fridge, microwave, kettle, crockery etc. unless they can be cleaned thoroughly after every use and before the next person uses them. Separate lunch and break times could be allocated to avoid staff using communal areas at the same time.

Meetings and third parties or customers entering the workplace

Where possible, meetings should be held remotely and not in person to avoid being in close confines with others and to avoid unnecessary travel. However, if meetings are required to be held face to face, you should carefully consider the logistics of the meeting and how the room should be set up. Companies have obligations to take care of the health and safety of third parties and customers entering their premises. Hand sanitising on entry to the building should be requested and careful consideration given as to how social distancing measures can be introduced for deliveries and collections in a business’ specific circumstances.

Where people cannot be 2 metres apart, manage transmission risk. If social distancing measures cannot be complied with at work, businesses should consider whether that activity needs to continue for the business to operate, and, if so, take all the mitigating actions possible to reduce the risk of transmission between their staff. These mitigating actions might include:

• Increasing the frequency of hand washing and surface cleaning
• Keeping the activity time as short in duration as possible
• Use screens or other physical barriers to separate people from each other
• Using back-to-back or side-to-side working (rather than face-to-face) whenever possible
• Reduce the number of people each person has contact with by using ‘fixed teams or partnering’ so each person works with only one or a few other people. This may mean introducing a shift pattern

Health & Safety

Health & Safety is going to be key to facilitating a safe return to work for your employees. It means understanding the government guidance and then translating that into your workplace, taking into account feasibility of the environment and the work that is to be carried out.

The key points issued by the government are:

  • Working from home, where possible
  • Conducting Covid-19 risk assessments (and publishing these on your website if you have 50 or more employees)
  • Adhering to two metre social distancing measures
  • Minimising the transmission risk by reducing the amount of human contact
  • Increasing hygiene and cleaning measures
  • Suitable levels of PPE (from sanitising gel to high vis vests)
  • Health & Safety refresher training (where possible, in formats easily accessible remotely)
  • Guidance on setting up a suitable working environment at home. This could be a DSE checklist or more detailed guidance or training
  • Easy access to support services such mental health first aiders, employee assistance programmes and HR teams

When conducting your own risk assessment there are a number of areas you should be covering, such as:

  • Reviewing entry and exit points of buildings and reducing the traffic flow in these areas
  • Reducing or eliminating shared equipment
  • Introducing a two-metre distance rule, which may include redesigning the workplace and displaying signage as a reminder
  • Introducing clearly marked one-way systems
  • Maintaining social distancing in communal areas, such as kitchens, canteens, lifts, meeting rooms, break rooms and toilets
  • Providing the correct PPE, such as masks, aprons, visors, barriers and screens
  • Providing ample hand sanitiser and anti-bacterial handwash

Once you have decided on your measures and completed your risk assessment, it is advisable to update your Health & Safety policy in respect of the pandemic and the measures you are taking in your workplace, as well as expectations for employees and visitors.

There are many resources available to ensure your workplace is COVID-19 ready. The government HSE resources covers many different sectors https://www.gov.uk/guidance/working-safely-during-coronavirus-covid-19.

Creating a new sense of belonging

Re-engaging employees with the business’s vision, strategy and values, and helping them re-establish working relationships, will help create a feeling of belonging that will positively impact commitment and performance.

Careful consideration of internal communication channels to ensure accessibility and content that encourages a sense of belonging, is just as important as managers enabling employees to re-establish working relationships across the business. Providing opportunities to feedback to business leaders on how employees are feeling and involving those identified as high potentials/future leaders in decision making will create a sense of belonging.

Communication

It is clear that communication is a crucial element to get right, as it has been since the pandemic began. If you do not communicate with your employees and provide reassurance, you will be looking at claims from employees who do not feel safe, who refuse to return to work or who do not adhere to the measures put into place.

Things to consider:

  • Have you sent all communications including Covid-19 risk assessment to all employees, even those on any sort of leave (holiday, sick, maternity etc)?
  • Have you opened a line of communication for employees to respond to communications sent and have you responded in a timely fashion and answered all queries raised?
  • Have you made clear to employees any consequences of not adhering to the measures put in place, such as wearing PPE and social distancing?

Continued Action

Once you have tackled the initial ‘return to work’ in whatever guise that may be, don’t stop there. The impact of Covid-19 is going to be felt continually in a number of ways and the best thing to do is to plan your strategy for the next 6-12 months to ensure you provide consistency and reassurance.

Things to consider include:

  • Have you planned in touch points with employees, whether present in the workplace or working from home, to ensure they continue to feel safe and protected?
  • Have you set points to review your risk assessment and measures to see if they remain fit for purpose or need adjusting?
  • Have you assigned a job role or department to keep up to date on developing government guidelines to ensure you are acting correctly?

If you’d like to talk to experienced HR consultants about anything mentioned in the article, from helping furloughed employees back to work to carrying out risk assessments, please don’t hesitate to get in touch on 0844 682 7488. Our HR gurus will be happy to chat through your needs and provide valuable, commercial and straight-talking advice.

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