Returning to work safely: your brand is at stake

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Businesses must define ‘safety at work’ before returning employees to offices, writes Gartner’s Brian Kropp, who describes strategic and practical considerations for organisations that are planning for the return of their workforces. He also warns businesses of the reputational dangers that lurk if they get the return badly wrong.

What are the challenges facing businesses seeking to reintroduce employees to offices?

What is important to realise is that organisations, to oversimplify, have two groups of employees. Those that have been working from home and those who can’t work from home.

Businesses find themselves in a tough spot as they navigate the process of reintroducing employees to offices. Many have had their employees adjust to a work from home situation. That, for the most part, has been a situation where they have actually been able to maintain employee performance and productivity. But they are now in the process of determining their process for getting employees back into the workplace.

The decisions that employers make about managing their employees during the next several months will define their employment brand for the next several years”

The current advice from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is that no business should bring employees back into the workplace unless it is safe to do so. The challenge for businesses, however, is to define on what constitutes “safe” and “Covid-secure” based on the unique specifications of their organisation. There will be no one-size fits all approach, and each business will have different considerations when it comes to factors including size, structure, space, sector, and geography.

In many instances, companies will be forced to make their own interpretations and roll-out their own reopening strategies. This will present them with brand new challenges. For example, they will have to decide who will be responsible for making these decisions. And importantly, they will need to understand who is liable should mistakes lead to the spread of coronavirus in the office.

The costs and challenges associated with bringing employees back to the office will be substantial, and in many situations, it is the right decision to make. But rather than just assume that all employees should come back to the office, executives should ask a question before that, which is which employees should come back to the office? And the answer to that question is maybe very few of them, if any.

What would be your advice to these businesses for managing a return to work?

Without proper guidance around what “safe” looks like, businesses will make mistakes. Expertise feeding down from business bodies and government will eventually improve, but this will not happen overnight. Until then, businesses should make reopening a slow and gradual process where possible.

There will be no one-size-fits-all approach for making offices Covid-secure but there are some common considerations that all companies should put at the heart of their back to work planning. These include:

Redesigning the workplace: The most immediate concern for businesses will be how to introduce effective health and safety measures into their office. Many will introduce advanced cleaning operations, while others will consider things like temperature checks and health screening. An important aspect of this will be rethinking the layout of the office to prioritise social distancing, flow of people and ventilation.

Managing the employee journey: Different employees will have different concerns about the re-entry process. Some will have concerns about their commute to work, some will have concerns about their health situation, others will have concerns about their workplaces. Employers should actually create a series of personas to help them understand the different situations their employees are facing. By taking this approach they will understand the re-entry process from the employee perspective, not just the employer perspective.

Phasing returns: A phased return to work is crucial, but the biggest mistake that businesses will make is bringing back staff in order of seniority. Instead the company should be asking questions like who is vulnerable? Who has the longest commute? Whose job is most difficult from home? Safety and security needs to come above rank.

Creating perception of safety: Workers will be fearful when returning to work, regardless of who they work for and how rigorous their employers’ office health and safety measures are. Their decisions and beliefs will be based on their perception of safety as much as the actual level of safety at the organisation. The communication of safety will be as important to employees as the measures themselves. Businesses need to consult their employees and understand their concerns, and reassure them on the measures in place to guarantee safety.

The biggest mistake that businesses will make is bringing back staff in order of seniority. Instead the company should be asking questions like who is vulnerable? Who has the longest commute? Whose job is most difficult from home?”

Building an exit strategy: Businesses should be prepared with an exit strategy should someone in the office test positive for the coronavirus. They should also communicate this exit strategy to employees before they return to work to make them feel more comfortable about coming back to the workplace. As with all new policies and rules, a lack of understanding will cause anxiety and upset among employees, so transparency is paramount here.”

What are the pressures facing businesses that accelerate plans to bring people back into the office?

It is important to note that there are many businesses that cannot operate without staff returning to the physical workspace. A number of leaders are being forced to balance the physical and financial wellbeing of their employees, and there is extraordinary complexity in this.

However, in many organisations, we are seeing leaders rushing to get employees back into the office based on misguided notions that remote workers are less productive, less engaged and less cooperative. Our findings from what we’ve called “the world’s largest remote working experiment”, is that employees, who can work from home, are just as productive working from home as they are in offices.

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A scene from a bygone age: Michael Bowles REX/Shutterstock

The working from home trend will only continue to accelerate after the pandemic. According to our latest research, 48% of employees expect to work remotely post-pandemic, up from 30% before the outbreak. Instead of tackling the risks involved with bringing significant numbers of employees back into the workplace, companies should be thinking about how they can make remote working work for them on a more long-term basis.

What are the long-term risks to businesses if they get decisions around reopening offices wrong?

The decisions that employers make about managing their employees during the next several months will define their employment brand for the next several years. By doing this correctly, companies will have an advantage in the labour market as they will be perceived as employers that really care about their employees. Alternatively, if they get it wrong, it will be harder for them to attract and retain talent as candidates view them as a company that doesn’t care about their employees.

Businesses have no place to hide in this pandemic – the decisions they are making face intense public scrutiny, and there is a great re-levelling around what constitutes a good and ethical business. Some will emerge from the pandemic with new found credibility, while others will see their reputations tarnished.

In the most extreme cases, by forcing employees to come back to the workplace before it is safe, and if the actions of an employer directly contributes to illness or the death of an employee, the business will be viewed as an uncaring employer. Not only will this impact their employment reputation, but customers will not want to buy products and services from a company that treats their employees this poorly.

There is a great re-levelling around what constitutes a good and ethical business. Some will emerge from the pandemic with new found credibility, while others will see their reputations tarnished”

What other factors must businesses consider before reopening offices?

On both a personal and professional level, this is an immensely traumatic time for employees, and each individual will have different concerns about returning to the workplace. This can range from fears about using public transport, to worries about infecting friends and colleagues. Many workers will be classed as vulnerable, and others will be living with high-risk individuals at home.

Businesses need to consider the emotional well-being of every single employee, and take the time understand each individual situation. Our latest research reveals that 44% of companies now planning a period of “voluntary return” to the workplace for their employees. This flexibility will be one of the most important aspects of managing the return to work experience.

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Brian Kropp

About Brian Kropp

Brian Kropp is chief of HR Research at Gartner
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