As the national discussion moves on to how the UK will return to work and whether things will ever return to ’normal’, Brian Kropp of global advisory organisation Gartner addresses key questions about the post-lockdown workplace environment. Interview by Adam McCulloch
What misconceptions have been busted by the lockdown work environment?
Many business leaders assume that the current remote working conditions are temporary while countries manage the threat of coronavirus, and that we’ll eventually get back to standard working practice. However, the truth is that the workplace will never be the same post-pandemic. In what we’re calling the world’s biggest trial of remote working, companies are rethinking a number of common workplace misconceptions.
Employers must realise that the perceptions of safety are just as important as the actual level of safety that is being provided to their employees”
The first is that employees are less productive working-from-home. Our research shows that this is simply not the case, and there is no fundamental difference in the output of remote and office-based employees. When you consider increased concerns around employee health post-pandemic, coupled with economic and environmental considerations, it will simply not make sense for businesses to bring all their employees back into the office.
The second misconception is that employees deliver their best work based on a nine-to-five schedule. As businesses give employees more flexibility over their schedules to manage lockdown conditions, they are realising this idea is massively outdated, and that productivity profiles are more personal. Some people work better in the morning, others at night, and by breaking these time constraints, a business can help make employees more productive.
And finally, there is a misconception that employees don’t want to hand over their personal data and information to their employer. Over the course of the pandemic, people have witnessed the effectiveness of data and technology in managing health and wellbeing. There will be an expectation that businesses use data and technology to aid the wellbeing of their employees post pandemic.
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This will all lead to significant changes in how the workplace looks and operates in the future. For example, some companies will trial moves to a smaller set of core hours (for example, 10-2 between Tuesday and Thursday) so they can manage meetings and interactions while still offering flexibility for employees. Others will use technology to enhance the working-from-home experience. The workplace we go back to will be very different to the one we left, and business leaders need to develop a vision of what theirs should look like.
What measures do you need to put into place to ensure that offices are safe to work in?
When the time comes for companies to start bringing employees back into the workplace, businesses will come under intense scrutiny for how they manage the wellbeing of their staff. Business leaders will therefore have to carefully consider their reintroduction strategies.
The most important aspect of this will be the company’s investment into health and safety measures. This will not be limited to taking temperature checks upon entry into the office, investing in advanced cleaning services, managing flow of people to avoid congregations, revising seating plans, limiting time spent in conference rooms, and adjusting sickness policies.
Beyond that, organisations need to consider how they can get supply chains up and running again in a safe manner, while determining what their exit strategies would be should someone in the workplace test positive for Covid-19. There is a final, crucial part of this that no one is talking about, and that is how do you manage perception of safety in the workplace so that employees feel comfortable returning?
Organisations need to have a rapid exit plan in case of positive tests for impacted locations, but only 30% of HR executives have built one”
How do you ensure that employees feel safe returning to work?
It would be a mistake for organisations to expect employees to return back to normal as soon as lockdown restrictions are lifted. It will be some time before Covid-19 vaccines are available, and at some point you will have to ask your employees to work in difficult circumstances. It is crucial that businesses recognise that all their employees have and are continuing to go through a traumatic experience – it is the biggest health crisis of our generation after all – and it will take time to reassure employees before they return to work.
There are two things that are critical for employers as they are managing the back to workplace experience. First, they must realise that the perceptions of safety are just as important as the actual level of safety that is being provided to their employees. To this point clear communication around the health and safety measures the company will be putting in place, and why they are being put in place is important. As part of this, organisations should take time to consult their employees and understand their concerns in returning to the workplace. Once this is in place, the business should operate a phased approach to returning to work, so other employees get to hear from their peers about these health and safety measures in practice.
It will simply not make sense for businesses to bring all their employees back into the office”
Second, organisations should prepare for the potential shut-down scenario if an employee tests positive at one of their work locations. Organisations need to have a rapid exit plan in case of positive tests for impacted locations, but only 30% of HR executives have built one. Be setting these expectations organisations will build more confidence in their employees that their employer is taking their health seriously.
How do you reintroduce furloughed members of staff?
Businesses need to be particularly sensitive when reintroducing furloughed members of staff to the workplace. On top of concerns about how their safety will be managed when returning to work, these individuals will have spent time out of their regular working patterns, may feel out-of-touch on company practice, and in some cases resent the decision to put them on furlough.
On top of this the post-pandemic workplace is likely to look very different to the one they left, with different rules, structures, purpose, goals and expectations. Companies will need to re-onboard their furloughed staff when they do return to the office. It will be important that the business treats them as a new member of staff, providing them time to settle in, and working hard to create a new sense of belonging.