Return to work: What do business leaders need to be prepared for?

Covid-19 | Covid-19 Advice | Employment & Skills | Reports

With COVID-19 forcing millions to work from home and isolate from colleagues, friends and family – there has been an increased focus on mental health for employees.

Following the easing of lockdown restrictions, millions of people will now be heading back to the office – but what can they expect, and how can leaders ensure that mental health and wellbeing are at the forefront of the new age of working?

Business Leader investigates.

The coronavirus-enforced lockdown came into effect on March 23rd 2020, forcing millions to work from home. As the government and business community felt the full force of its impact, the furlough scheme was put into place. But now, government is encouraging employees to return to work where it is safe to do so.

A new working world

So, how can a business owner be ready for the return to the office and continue to support their employees health and wellbeing?

Alaana Woods, Health Services Commercial Director, Bupa UK, comments: “COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the way we work, and as we move into the next phase and start thinking about employees returning to the office, it’s important that businesses put procedures and policies in place to support their staff to feel safe when returning to work, reducing any anxiety or concerns that may come with it.

“Our research found that 65% of us are feeling anxious about returning to the office, with commuting, overcrowded office space and unclean areas being top of their concerns. Businesses need to consider this in the return to work strategies and look at individual factors as to why someone may not be able to return to the office just yet.

“Employees need policies in place to support them to safely return to work. For example, flexible working policies for those who are anxious about commuting into the office can be introduced to avoid rush hour. If you didn’t have a working from home policy already, now would be a good time to introduce one, giving your employees the opportunity to work from home some of the week, as well as coming into the office if it’s safe to do so.

“A key thing that has come out of the pandemic is that people are more aware of their health and wellbeing than ever before, and want services in place that support them and their family.”

It is this support that will be key to preparing the workforce for the future – with many still coming to terms with the new world we live in.

Kate Cooper, Head of Research, Policy and Standards at The Institute of Leadership and Management, comments: “In an office environment, people’s workspaces can, to a large extent, be controlled; for example, the size of their desk, the technology they use, the strength of the internet connection, access to refreshments, even the level of noise. The quick switch to home working meant so many aspects of the working environment became uncontrollable. These are as variable as the individual; working at home affects everybody very differently, because it’s their unique domestic circumstances that are really creating that work environment for them. We’ve been getting an insight into people’s personal lives that previously they might have kept to themselves. By commuting to work, you could leave home behind you and bring just the parts of yourself to work that you wanted to.

“So, employers will need to have conversations that are genuine, in order to understand the impact lockdown has had on their employees, particularly when helping to bring them back into the workplace.”

Impact of furlough, isolation and remote working

Following the return to the office, many discussions will be had between employer and employee about how their specific career will be handled, and for those that have been on furlough or working remotely, there are mental health considerations.

Dr Nick Earley, Head of Psychology at Helix Resilience, comments: “Lockdown has certainly taken its toll on the mental wellbeing of workers. We recently conducted a survey exploring the mental health of 2,000 white-collar employees and managers, and the research highlighted that lockdown affected 83% of respondents’ mental health in some way. The changes manifest in various forms and, whilst some can be considered normal reactions to an abnormal situation, others suggest more serious mental health difficulties – such as feeling down, depressed or hopeless, or experiencing thoughts of self-harm or suicide.

“Concerningly, 32% of respondents do not believe their employer has supported their wellbeing during lockdown. It’s important for businesses to regularly keep in touch with workers who are self-isolating, furloughed or who might be feeling isolated while working from home.”

The difficulty for all business owners that have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic is the fact that there is almost an infinite myriad of unique and unprecedented personal circumstances that have arisen for millions of workers.

Nazir Ul-Ghani, Head of Workplace, Facebook EMEA, said: “Self-isolation brought many complexities to people’s lives and these haven’t ended with the lockdown. We all have colleagues who are carers or parents, as well as those who are high-risk or have struggled this year. To truly support their employees, organisations need to be considerate of the myriad individual circumstances that the pandemic will have created or exacerbated.

“Showing empathy and providing flexibility to those who need it will ensure that everyone is able to do their jobs to the best of their abilities and comfort levels. Communication and collaboration tools can help to provide this flexibility, allowing employees that aren’t able to return to the office right away to still connect with colleagues, get work done and feel part of the organisation.”

A relentless focus on being as prepared as possible for both yourself as a leader of a business – and the team that make the business tick – is vitally important. When the furlough scheme was introduced as part of the government’s plans to keep the economy afloat, many saw it as a positive. And although it has, to an extent, achieved its goals – the emotional results have not been completely positive.

Cooper comments: “Even though on the face of it, furlough seems to be a case of being paid not to come into work, it is in fact a rejection. It’s a statement that whatever you normally do in the workplace is not required. That’s a very hard thing to deal with, even if there are some silver linings.

“The idea of not being wanted will, of course, give rise to such fears as, ‘Well, for how long will I not be wanted?, Will this sense of rejection be continuous?, Will furlough segue into a more permanent state of unwantedness – namely redundancy?’. As our research has repeatedly shown, people like to have control over their working day: I don’t think anyone who has contributed to our various reports over the years has ever told us that their idea of control is doing no work at all. Most people seek purpose from their work. The first step is definitely recognising that furlough is accompanied by a feeling of rejection – and that requires leaders to empathise with the affected staff.”

It is these uncertainties around the negative impact of the furlough scheme that business owners will need to be prepared for.

Phil Pinnington, Audit and Consultancy Manager, British Safety Council, explains: “Many will fear that furloughing is the first stage before redundancy and unemployment, and that will have had a negative impact on their mental health. Furloughed workers may resent those who have continued to work, but, by the same token, those who have worked throughout the pandemic may see furlough as a better option, and this will cause tension between employees who have had a very different experience of the pandemic. The furlough scheme allows employers to bring people back to work part time, which may help the transition back to work. It is important to ensure that furloughed workers are brought up to speed and do not feel they have been ignored while not working.”

Have video calls been overused?

One of the most iconic images associated with the coronavirus lockdown, is of a video conference call. Whether it be on national news or in the living rooms of people across the UK, this simple but effective piece of technology has seen an unprecedented surge in usage.

While it has been helpful in keeping employees happy with their mental health, after many months of usage, the danger business leaders need to consider is how much longer it can remain as useful as it has been.

Woods comments: “Video calls and instant messaging services have allowed us to keep in touch, both in a business and social capacity. And whilst we get to grips with what the new normal will look like in the working world, it’s likely that they will continue to have a big impact on how teams work.

“As video meetings have become the default mode of communication in many circumstances, it’s important for businesses to recognise that they can become exhausting for employees too, especially when they are back-to-back or for prolonged periods. Managers should encourage regular breaks and to consider whether a video call is truly the best form of interaction for the task at hand. Remember to still make use of regular phone calls, as well as emails, to avoid remaining seated for hours and becoming run down with the heightened awareness that can come with presenting yourself on camera.”

Challenges

Times have been challenging for everyone – and despite the best efforts of business leaders and technology – there could still be hard times ahead. As the working world moves into this next stage of the coronavirus-affected business limitations currently being experienced – there are several new challenges to tackle.

The uncertainty around a potential second wave and the mixed reactions by employees provide the next daunting challenge for business leaders.

Ul-Ghani explains: “The year ahead isn’t going to be easy. For organisations that choose to return to the office, it won’t look or feel the same. Strict social distancing rules will impact office layouts and logistics, only a portion of employees will be able to come together at once, and there’ll be the constant threat of a return to lockdown. As a result, employers will still need to find new ways to bring everyone together, create equal experiences for those within and outside of the physical workplace, and be prepared to react quickly.

“The other challenge is that you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. A full return to the office might be possible, but employees have come to value the benefits of remote work and might not want to just ‘get back to normal’. And why should they? Organisations have learnt real lessons from lockdown and it’s on leaders to think about how their businesses can evolve and improve rather than reverting to old ways.”

Changing views on mental health

COVID-19 is perhaps the most life-changing event to happen this century – and its current and after-affects will go down as a pivotal moment in human history.

The business community in the UK and across the globe has, as a result, become increasingly aware of the importance of mental health and wellbeing of employees. Once considered just a ‘box ticking exercise’ for a HR manager, it is now at the forefront of future-proofing a business for a CEO.

Harry Bliss, Director of Champion Health, said: “Mental health seems to be at an inflection point. Employers that previously didn’t want to look at mental wellbeing are doing so now. We believe this is because COVID-19 has opened businesses’ minds to the fact that we can all be vulnerable. In addition, businesses are now realising their most important asset: their people.”

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