How to focus on the people aspects of a COVID workplace return (Guest blog by Sarah Haselwood)

This month I am delighted to welcome my first guest blog from the wonderful Sarah.  Sarah is a Freelance Writer who I met virtually during the Covid-19 lockdown through the wonderful Dan at RHNetworking in Surrey. We spoke on the phone and Sarah, who has a background in HR before her copywriting days, suggested writing a blog for me. She wrote so beautifully, I had to feature it this month. I hope that you enjoy it!

“As employers continue to plan for their workforce to return to the office after lockdown, there are many practical factors to consider. However, employers mustn’t ignore the people aspects of a COVID workplace return. Employees will have experienced several work changes and challenges during the lockdown, and employees must be considered on an individual basis when managers are consulting about a COVID workplace return. There are some specific ways in which employers and managers can approach their people to ensure a fair and consistent discussion. Communication really is essential.

A COVID workplace return consultation

Pre COVID-19 only 30% of the UK workforce worked from home. Therefore, the lockdown has changed the way managers communicate and lead their people and a return to work will create further challenges. Managers must ensure that they treat all their teams as individuals and consult with each person separately about their potential COVID workplace return. There must be a level of sensitivity for each person’s situation as some employees will have tackled homeschooling, furloughing, financial or mental health challenges.

Furloughed employees

During the lockdown, furlough has become a word we’re all familiar with. Managers must be aware of the potential impact of furloughing on an employee and treat each furloughed employee with sensitivity. Employees who have been furloughed may find it difficult to adapt to being back at work or may feel demotivated or devalued. Managers must communicate with their furloughed employees regarding their transition back to work and work together to make it as smooth a transition as possible.

Parents and childcare

Many parents will have been without schools or childcare during the lockdown, and this may continue for some time. The flexible furlough scheme is effective from 1 July until 31 October 2020 and will allow employers and employees to agree to flexible working mutually. For example, if agreed, an employee could work on the days their child’s school is open and be furloughed for the days it is not. There are caveats to this, but the scheme may offer the flexibility that parents will undoubtedly require in the coming months, although it is not in any way confined to parents.

Consider mental health

The impact of lockdown will affect individuals in different ways, but we have to be mindful to ensure that we look after employees and their mental health. A recent poll by Linkedin and the Mental Health Foundation found that over half of UK workers working from home during lockdown were more anxious or stressed and felt their mental health had declined during this time. Some individuals may have health, financial or job security worries; others may be lonely or caring for others. Regardless of the reason, COVID-19 will have had an impact on mental health, and we need to be aware of each employee and their needs.

If an employee refuses to return

There may be employees who do not want to return to the workplace. For some, it may be a case of discussing in detail with them the health and safety measures that are in place to protect them and ensuring they have a copy of the updated health and safety or a COVID return to work policy. Once again, a sensitive and individual approach is essential. Managers need to understand concerns and work with the employee to agree on a phased return to work or a continued work from home arrangement.

Consider an Employee Assistance Programme

Employee Assistance Programmes are an excellent way to offer employees support through telephone or video counselling. Such counselling allows individuals to discuss in confidence their mental health, finances, family, work concerns etc. If the company offers a programme, then it should be communicated to all employees so that they all have the option for additional confidential support.

The workforce isn’t going to return to the workplace after lockdown overnight, as there are many people related considerations. The workplace will likely change, and the COVID return will be gradual. Employers will need to be open to individual needs and factor in different work patterns which may include a phased return and continued remote working. Essentially managers need to ensure a reinduction for all employees to facilitate an effective return to the workplace as the same approach cannot be applied to all employees.”

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