How to get back to work

This is the write-up from the eleventh in our current series of virtual coffee breaks – designed to provide a caffeine-enriched forum for discussion amongst senior executives who might otherwise be going stir-crazy during this period of lockdown. 

The topic for this session was: ‘How to get back to work in a deeply damaged world?’ and our speakers were Cathy Acratopulo and Aaron Alburey, co-founders of LACE Partners, the ground-breaking HR consultancy.

Aaron started the call by welcoming everyone and acknowledging this is an immensely difficult time for many organisations and people. HR functions are fully stretched and are having to be at their most creative and innovative in responding to the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Aaron and Cathy have been working with their clients to help them navigate through this crisis and have been running a series of webinars, for HR leaders, using their 12 Point People Model for Crisis Management. 

This model covers the three broad waves of activity that organisations are working through:

  1. Reaction Activities – the immediate strategic response to the crisis, emergency workforce planning, leadership and recovery planning. 
  2. Supporting Activities – new policies (for remote working, furlough, redundancy, wellbeing, sickness absence and compassionate leave), creative engagement with staff, supporting their wellbeing and demonstrating the right leadership behaviours.
  3. Thriving Activities – the transition back to work, retaining home-working muscle and learning the lessons from this crisis. 

At the start of this crisis, everyone’s focus was, rightly, on the immediate operational challenges – getting people working from home, deciding which parts of the business to keep open and which to shut down, etc. 

Over the last few weeks, the focus has started to shift to the upcoming challenge of getting back to work – which is potentially a lot more complicated.

Transition Back to Work

On their last webinar, Aaron and Cathy asked 80 HR leaders to what extent they were ready for the transition back to work: 89% were clear that they didn’t have a plan. They have been so caught up in the operational challenges that they have not had the headroom to think ahead. Now is the time to really be focusing on this. 

We’re expecting to hear more detail from the government, next week, on how the lockdown will be lifted. However, this is likely to be only very high-level guidance, without specific dates and without much of the detail that businesses will need to know. 

So, most organisations will have to use some degree of scenario planning to anticipate the various possible approaches and timetables. We don’t have all the detail of how this will work in the UK yet, but we can learn lessons from what is happening in other countries that are a few weeks ahead of us on the curve. 

One of the key things to think through is how the return to work should be phased, in terms of the products and services that will be switched back on, in which locations and, of course, employing which segments of the workforce. It is likely this will have to be staged over several weeks and months, rather than happening all at once. 

If your company has staff on furlough, this means working out who to bring back first and how to do this in a way that is safe and fair. If staff are incentive based, then those who come back first will have more opportunity. 

In all likelihood, due to social distancing measures, it will not be possible to have as many people working in the same building as before and here will most likely be additional health and safety measures to put in place before people can return to work (including things like hand sanitisers, screens, social distancing in canteens, etc.).

There will also be a workforce mindset shift. Some people will have had bereavements or still be looking after relatives who are at risk or self-isolating. Others will be excited to be coming back to work. So, it will be critical to strike the right tone and the spotlight will be very much on the line managers. 

The transition back to work is going to be even more difficult to manage than the lockdown itself. Line managers will be working with fractured teams, including a mix of people who are in the office, working from home, on sick or compassionate leave, furloughed, etc. The lockdown was implemented very quickly, the return to work is going to take a lot longer and be a lot more complicated and challenging. 

Retaining Home Working Muscle

The CEO of Barclays said recently that the days of large numbers of people working in huge office blocks are behind us. Gartner have predicted that, in future, offices will be places people go for a specific experience, rather than somewhere they go to work all the time.

The simple fact is, most companies will have at least some of their people working from home for the foreseeable future. So, how should companies manage this?

Firstly, it’s important to listen to people and understand what has worked well and what has been more difficult. Some employees are loving working from home, but it’s not so good for others who may be living in shared accommodation, or caring for relatives, or surrounded by a noisy family. 

Everyone’s situation is different, so it’s important to seek out opinions and think about how to transition each individual, either to working in the office or continuing to work from home, or a bit of each, with lots of discussion about what is working and what is not. 

There are wellbeing issues to be considered as well, especially where people have been working in social isolation for an extended period. 

There is a balance to be struck between the needs of the business and the duty of care towards employees. A key element of this is maintaining the trust that has been built up in employees who have shown they can work productively from home, albeit with little else to do during lockdown. 

Companies have made significant, rapid changes to their operating models, technology and processes to adapt to large parts of their workforce working remotely. The challenge now is to work out which of these changes should be made permanent and how to retain the best of what has been learnt over these last few, difficult weeks. 

Learn the Lessons

Right now we are all having a learning experience on a daily basis and it’s hard to capture this while we’re grappling with the immediate operational challenges we’re facing. It’s important to set aside the time to do this in a structured way. 

Companies will want to assess the extent to which their continuity and crisis management plans stood up to the test of Covid-19 and consider how well prepared they are for a potential second wave and second lockdown. 

Leadership will want to assess how well they performed and what they might need to do differently in the future. Revised crisis management plans will be drawn-up. 

This may not seem like a priority right now, but it is really important and needs to be done now, while the data is available (as the lessons should be data driven, not anecdotal). 

Q&A

It feels as though the switch to working from home was relatively straightforward compared to the challenge we’re facing in getting back to work, how significant is this challenge?

  • It’s a hugely complicated and challenging problem and will require significant effort, especially in terms of people and facilities management. There are some real practical issues to be resolved. 
  • For example, think about some of the huge office blocks in Canary Wharf and how they will manage the requirement for social distancing – even something as simple as how to stand in a lift (with one person in each corner) would be difficult to make work on that scale. 
  • Even though people may be expecting to return to work in the office once lockdown is lifted, the reality is their return will have to be staggered, with only the most critical workers first. 

If we get testing for antibodies, will this help to get people back to work?

  • The critical thing is to be guided by your duty of care to your people and by the guidance from government. As things stand, we don’t know whether having had Covid-19 confers a degree of immunity or for how long. We would need a level of confidence in this.
  • When lockdown is eased, some people may still not feel safe returning to work, either because they have vulnerable relatives at home or because they don’t trust the social distancing measures in their workplace. 
  • We need to stay on top of the information and guidance we are given but also remain congruent with the values our organisation.

Is it the responsibility of the organisation to provide PPE?

  • The organisation is responsible for providing a safe environment for its employees. If that means PPE is required, for example due to working in close proximity on an assembly line, then yes, PPE will have to be provided. 
  • We don’t have guidelines from the government on this yet, but looking at what is happening in other countries, it seems likely some level of PPE will be required, especially in industries like manufacturing. 
  • There is also the moral issue of seeking to procure PPE for your workforce at a time when the NHS is struggling to source sufficient stocks for its own use. So, large companies will want to take this factor into account as well. 
  • If the government is issuing guidance requiring companies to provide PPE, they will also need to issue guidance on how this is to be procured, without compromising the NHS. 

Could an employer be held liable for an employee contracting Covid-19 at work?

  • Potentially, yes, if it can be demonstrated that the employer failed to implement the government’s guidance, e.g. on social distancing. The overriding point is the duty of care towards the employee and companies will want to make sure they are doing everything they can in this regard. 
  • We’re certainly expecting to see an increase in grievance cases, especially where people feel they are being put at risk by being asked to return to work before they feel it is safe to do so. It may help, in some cases, to ask for volunteers, particularly where there are more qualified members of staff available than are actually required. 

Are we heading towards a certification world?

  • It’s more likely we’ll see an emphasis on contact tracing and maybe on the use of a contact tracing app, rather than any form of certification. Unless we are having very regular testing, certification isn’t going to help us get out of this, and we certainly don’t have the testing capacity for this at the moment. 
  • We have the advantage of being slightly behind the curve, compared to several other countries, so it will useful to see what we can learn from them. 

We’re expecting some guidance from the government next week, how soon before we see new regulations?

  • It’s most likely we’re going to see a steady stream of advice and guidance that will evolve over the coming weeks and months. This could cover anything from face coverings and flexi-glass screens to temperature sensors and thermal cameras. We will need to be agile in keeping up and adapting.

What about consultants working at client sites?

  • Consultants and suppliers returning to client premises adds a further layer of complexity. Clients may require consultants to be on site and to comply with their new measures. Equally consulting firms will want to know (and have a duty to ensure) their employees are safe as well. This will require a level of transparency in both directions. 
  • Consultants are, of course, also adapting to the current lockdown and, in many cases are finding they can deliver their services remotely (for example, LACE have been using videoconferencing and collaboration tools to run client workshops very effectively). 

Conclusion

We will learn more about the government’s plans for ending the lockdown next week, but we won’t get chapter and verse. Companies will need to fall back on their own values and understand the measures they will need to put in place, taking into account the value of a given function to their business and their duty of care to their employees. 

Even when the lockdown is lifted by the government, many companies will actually return to work more slowly and in stages, pausing before they put their people in harm’s way.  

This is a uniquely complex situation that requires a great deal of innovation, agility and collaboration. Going into the lockdown was a lot like flicking a switch – it’s not going to be like that coming out. It will be extremely hard and require significant planning and preparation. 

Follow-up Session and Future Events

In response to a suggestion from one of the participants, we are planning to run a follow-up session in a couple of weeks – you can register for this here or for any of our other future events, please click here.

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