Working well after the pandemic

Posted 08/04/2021 : By: Jem Cranfield

The CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel Development) has recently released a report, ‘Flexible Working: Lessons from the Pandemic’ which makes interesting reading for employers and HR professionals alike.  Among its findings, 63% of employers indicated that they planned to introduce or expand ‘hybrid working’ arrangements where employees split their working time between their home and an office.  In terms of wellbeing, 46% of employees felt this had improved because they weren’t having to commute, with 39% saying that flexibility around working hours was also benefitting wellbeing and work-life balance.

For employers, the report found that 71% believed that productivity had improved or remained unchanged, and less than a quarter of employers noticed an actual decrease in productivity.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, most employers reported being surprised at the relative success of homeworking arrangements where they had resisted them before the pandemic.  

Here are three more areas where the pandemic can have a positive impact on how we continue to work:

1. Keep using technology  

Whilst many people have experienced video-call fatigue over the last year, technology will still have its place as the workplace returns as we’ve relied on it more than ever.  Video calls have come into their own and can continue to help organisations and the environment by reducing unnecessary expenses and travel.  Scans and photographs can reduce the likelihood of physical post being lost or intercepted.  Remote training courses mean that more staff can be upskilled more quickly.  Customers can place orders quickly online via websites, and company handbooks, chatrooms and noticeboards can all be taken online so that employees are connected to work whenever they need to be, wherever they are.

2. Think about reward differently 

Salary is a key part of employee reward, but perhaps the post-pandemic employer needs to start thinking more creatively about ways to attract, retain and motivate staff.  Flexible working – which includes where staff work, as well as when – is likely to become something many employees expect to be offered, rather than something they need to request.  What else might employees want? Employers should begin by asking! But starting points might be considering an allowance to buy homeworking equipment, details of desk exercises (or time with a physio) to keep employees healthy, the opportunity to change the office layout to make it more welcoming and collaborative, a guarantee that new starters will be able to meet their team face to face, relaxing formal dress codes, changing start times so that the crowded commute really is a thing of the past, having ‘no email’ days to encourage face to face meetings or phone calls… there’s a real chance to think differently about what employees want from their workplace.

3. Continue building trust  

We’ve all had to adjust to not seeing our colleagues face to face.  Whilst it might have been tempting to assume this means employees are not working as hard as they should, the survey results above show that this is not a good assumption to make!  The vast majority of employees value their roles and will welcome the autonomy and empowerment that different ways of working imply.  Managers can continue to build trust by setting clear boundaries and expectations which can be applied to everyone (for example how the team will keep each other up to date, who is responsible for specific tasks, and how problems will be dealt with), synchronising work patterns amongst colleagues where possible, emphasising two-way information sharing, ensuring team resources are up to date and accessible and of course by modelling the behaviours that they want to see in their teams.  It is also wise to think about switching the focus from how employees work, to the quality of the work they produce – if the end result is great and was delivered on time, does it matter whether it was done by someone at home at 10pm or someone in the office at 10am? A trusting team is an agile, respected and high performing team!

It is tempting to assume that home or hybrid working is something that everyone wants to continue, but of course, there are certain jobs that simply can’t be performed in this way, and for others, homeworking has not been a positive experience.  

The Office for National Statistics reported in November 2020 that 8% of adults (some 4.2 million people) were ‘always or often’ lonely – for working adults, the loss of daily physical interactions with colleagues or customers will have been keenly felt.  The Police recorded a 7% increases in reports of domestic violence in March – June 2020 compared to the same time in 2019, suggesting that home is not a safe place for some staff who may have benefited from the geographical separation of home and work to help them feel secure.  We know that as of February 2021, 11.2 million jobs had been supported by the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme since it started in March 2020, showing that many staff have been out of the routine of work entirely, let alone out of the office.  

Here are four areas where employers will need to tread carefully:

1. Avoid a ‘one size fits all’ return to the workplace 

Employers face a range of different considerations when planning who returns to the workplace and when.  Some employees will have been in the workplace throughout, some will not have seen their colleagues for over a year and others may feel very anxious about stepping back into the wider world including work.  Employers should consider meeting with each employee who is expected to return, in order to carry out a risk assessment, agree on what the return will look like, and confirm what support or reassurance is needed.  Really think about whether the employee needs to come back immediately, or whether this can be phased, or part of a hybrid approach.  Concerns should be addressed quickly and objectively.  Employers could consider holding ‘re-induction’ sessions for employees to help them understand what has changed, and allow them to reconnect socially and emotionally with their colleagues before expecting them to work as normal.

2. Watch out for wellbeing 

In addition to anxiety about a return to the workplace, employees may also be dealing with a lot of other concerns that affect their wellbeing.  These might include bereavement, the after-effects of Coronavirus, financial worries, relationship changes, or challenges associated with being apart from partners, children and even pets who have provided support and safety during these times.  Managers should make time for teams to talk about how they are feeling, and model compassion and flexibility.  Businesses with an Employee Assistance Program or other avenues of support should make sure that employees know how to access them.  A buddy system can provide an informal support network amongst staff, and if budget allows then training some staff to be Mental Health First Aiders can be a worthwhile investment.  

3. Don’t leave people behind 

Employers may find that they need to take new or extra steps to ensure they are treating employees fairly.  Disabled employees have the right to reasonable adjustments to remove or reduce the barriers they face at work – some employees will have developed disabilities (especially mental health conditions) during lockdown and those who already had disabilities might have experienced a change in their condition.  Take time to talk to employees about what they might need and if in doubt, get their consent to seek advice from their health professional, an Occupational Health provider or the Government Access to Work Scheme.  

4. Be aware of other potential pandemic pitfalls 

This includes things such as remembering that some employees may be advised not to have the Coronavirus vaccine for medical reasons which will make mandatory vaccination difficult to enforce; changes to employment contracts (including places of work) will require consultation with those affected in order to be fair; some employees may be returning to a workplace that has had to make significant changes or redundancies - be supportive and ensure training is given where necessary and ensure clear communication is maintained with those remaining employees who will help rebuild the business; Many employees will have accrued annual leave during lockdown which they are entitled to take upon return to work – the law has been changed to permit 4 weeks’ paid holiday to be carried over into the next two holiday years if there has been an impact because of Coronavirus.

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