Time to Hit the Reset Button - Returning to the Workplace

As the Government provided much needed clarity on 31st August 2021 with regards to Returning to the Workplace, our HR Solutions Team have reviewed and addressed some of the concerns employers have in relation to a phased return to the office working environment as the current restrictions start to lift from 20th September 2021. For many, this announcement should be viewed as a time to hit the reset button as people are looking forward to redeeming some kind of normality in their professional life in the coming weeks.

As business experts spin through endless conversations about on-site, remote and hybrid work model options, how we move on from the “new normal” should be carefully thought out by employers as a One-Size-Fits-All approach will not work for every organisation. Companies have different geographical footprints, talent base, strategic plans, missions, values etc. and all these factors will impact any Return to Work Strategy and/or new working agreements. Implementing an on-going, sustainable remote or hybrid working model will take time to analyse, implement and review.

How Companies act now will be key to employee retention and engagement as evidence of the “Great Resignation” is picking up steam—and burnout, concerns about work/life balance and fears of COVID among the potential reasons being largely to blame. Perhaps central to all of these factors is flexibility—or a lack thereof. Based on a global survey conducted by professional services network EY, 87% and 88% of respondents believe workplace flexibility is important in where and when they work, respectively.

Return to Work Strategy

It is important to have a safe Return to Work Strategy in place. Many people may be reluctant to return for many different reasons such as childcare, commute times, anxiety and fear, changes in employment terms and conditions etc.

Companies will also have to deal with employees being reluctant to return simply because they now prefer staying at home – listen to them, hear what they have to say. Communicate the measures that have been put in place to protect them whilst at work and consult with them. If they still refuse to return to work, remind them that their contract of employment clearly states where their place of work is and if they still refuse, then this could potentially lead down a disciplinary path.

Employers are exploring the option of supporting hybrid and flexible working models which can create both opportunities and challenges for companies. It is important for employers to consider how this working strategy will be implemented and how this may benefit the company as well as the employee.

Transitioning to a fully remote or hybrid work model in the long-term is complex and requires organisation and planning; for some, this may seem simple as this is what they have had to do since March 2020 but going forward, as a long-term arrangement, employers will need to analyse this and set out what best fits the need of the company, while communicating with their employees. Employers may consider a trial period to monitor these work models in order to establish if these adjustments will work long term.

Employers also need to consider implementing a Remote Working/Work from Home Policy and update their current policies to reflect these changes – remember to review and update Contracts of Employment also in relation to long-term changes to employees’ terms and conditions such as place of work, working times etc.

Employee Consultation and Feedback

Communication and feedback from employees is important and having an insight into how they feel in relation to these issues is important. What are your employees saying on returning to the workplace – it is another readjustment for them after over 19-months - gather feedback via surveys, team meetings, focus groups, retain and evaluate your employee’s desires, needs and concerns. This information will have an impact on your Return to Work Strategy and overall employee morale, motivation, retention and engagement.

Take stock of their feedback! Listen!

Considerations for a Safe Return to Work:

  1. New Work Practices and Structures in the Workplace Companies may need to develop new work practices and structures to ensure a safe working environment while adhering to the HSE and Occupational Health & Safety guidelines to ease employees’ minds in returning to work. Employers need to start thinking about their “Recall” Strategy for employees who have been working remotely, temporarily laid-off or on short-time working. Again, while one strategy may work for one Company, it may not necessarily work for another, but while planning the “Re-call” strategy, simple considerations like building employee and client trust, reviewing the needs of your employees and clients will contribute to these plans as we enter this newest return to work phase. When deciding on your Re-call Strategy, take the time to do this, whilst considering the following:
    • Who do you call-back first – be mindful of employment legislation and avoid any potential claims under employment equality and the nine (9) grounds of discrimination e.g. gender, family status, age, disability, race etc.
    • Having more flexibility so that you can adjust your return-to-office timeline (e.g. push from September to October or early next year)
    • What model of working you will implement going forward (e.g. commit to a hybrid framework, offer a permanent remote option)
    • Any accompanying mandates (e.g. mask usage, social distancing, frequent testing, workplace hygiene)

Be sure to consider the talent war taking place and the potential business impact - employers must listen to the workforce’s demand for flexible work arrangements if they hope to recruit and retain talent in today’s competitive hiring market.

2. Communicating Your Decision 

It is vital to communicate with employees throughout the planning process. Communicating, and how you communicate, the return strategy with employees is equally important. Employers need to be able to explain the business justifications or rationale behind these decisions and be prepared to answer any concerns and fears employees may have.

Once you’ve decided what you’ll be communicating, how you communicate it becomes equally important, so consider the following:

  • “Why”? 
    • If you’re implementing the approach that everyone returns to the office in September or October, remember that your employees are likely to be more fearful than usual as since March 2020, COVID-19 has impacted people in many different ways. It’s important to demonstrate to your employees that their best interests is at the forefront, at all times, as you maintain safety measures and protocols or slowly reduce them in line with national guidelines.
  • Delivering the messaging? 
    • Outline to all employees any new changes that are being implemented and be consistent e.g. new policies that are being introduced must be explained to them, and ensure that your Management Team have a clear and consistent message as they will be the people who will have to answer these questions.
  • Sharing the message 
    • Share information readily, openly and regularly with employees through internal communications, team meetings, emails, phone calls, and one-on-one conversations.

Listen and encourage feedback.

3. Employee Well-being 

As many people welcome the news of the re-opening of offices it is also important to consider the mental health and wellbeing of employees. Many employees were forced to adapt to remote working 19 months ago and this has become the “new norm.”

Employees may have gone through traumatic events during the crisis and may also be fearful of returning to the office. Employers need to put supports in place for employees who may be suffering from anxiety or stress and provide information on publicly available sources of support and advice. As part of this, employers should also outline the measures that they have put in place to reduce the risk of infection in the workplace. The RBK HR Solutions Team can advise and assist you in devising this plan.

Companies can rethink workflow, office environment and company offerings to make it a healthy choice for employees to work on-site. This is now referred to as the “Nourish/Flourish” model, in which employers are providing incentives for, instead of impediments to, the healing process—investing in employee well-being and, as a by-product, company wellbeing.

Think about introducing an Employee Assistance Programme for your employees to access, which is a confidential employee benefit service that helps employees deal with both personal and/or work related problems.

Key Takeaways:

Employers will now need to decide on the following:

  • How to facilitate a safe return to the workplace and who is coming back into the office and when 
  • Timing - when the return will take place e.g. a gradual re-opening, staggered re-opening of the workplace 
  • Communication with employees - get their views, insight, suggestions, listen to their concerns and feedback: 
    • Meet with them – one-to-one meetings, focus groups, team meetings
    • Conduct an Employee Survey to see what they are really thinking 
  • The logistics of the return to the workplace: 
    • The control measures required such as team splits, staggered working times, social distancing, protective gear, masks, office hygiene such as hand sanitisation etc. and visitor screening 
  • How will employees return to work – full-time, hybrid model/flexible working

The implications for potential employee relations issues, low morale and lack of employee engagement needs to be considered in all of this, as well as the smooth operation of the business.

The bottom line is communicate, communicate, and communicate!

The RBK HR Solutions can advise and guide you through a safe Return to Work Plan and anticipate how to deal with employees concerns regarding their return or dealing with employees’ refusal to return to the workplace, whilst all the time keeping employment law obligations towards employees at the forefront.

For more advice and support please contact a member of the RBK HR Solutions Team: 

  • Yvonne Clarke – HR Solutions Manager
  • Áine Dunne - HR Consultant

Yvonne Clarke

HR Solutions Manager

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