As the government cuts lockdown restrictions, how will companies get back to work?

This is the write-up from the twelfth in our series of virtual coffee breaks – designed to provide a caffeine-enriched forum for discussion amongst senior executives who might otherwise be going stir-crazy working from home. 

The topic for discussion this morning was the challenges faced by companies in getting back to work, now that lockdown restrictions are being eased. We were delighted to welcome back our guest speakers, 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, both in responding to the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic and in managing the phased return to work.

On Sunday, Boris Johnson announced the government’s three step plan for gradual easing of lockdown restrictions, contingent on continued reduction in the number of Covid-19 cases and the rate of infection. 

Shifting from a government-mandated lockdown to an employer-led return to work

While there is some lack of clarity following this announcement, it’s clear this marks a shift from the government-mandated lockdown to an employer-led return to work. The onus is now very much on employers to tread carefully and think through each stage of the return to work, just as the government has signalled it will be cautiously adjusting its guidance over the coming weeks and months. 

Aaron and Cathy have been working with their clients to help them navigate this, 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. 

Risk assessment and providing a safe working environment

In talking to their clients, Aaron and Cathy are finding that Boris’s announcement itself generated far more questions than answers. The government has since provided more detailed guidance, including the 50-page document published on Monday, which included guidance on making workplaces “Covid-19 secure” and travel guidance encouraging people to walk, cycle or drive to work (rather than using public transport).

Most organisations are working through this guidance and what it means for their own particular situation:

  • Companies that were previously office based and are now largely working from home, will most likely continue to work from home for quite some time to come.
  • Companies, including many in the construction and manufacturing sectors, that have remained at work, now have more guidance.
  • Companies, including, for example, those in the hospitality and leisure sectors, that have been closed, now have some guidance on how to get back to work. 

We also now have more information on the continuation of the furlough scheme, which will stay in place on the current terms until the end of July and then be extended for a further three months on more flexible terms. 

The overriding message in Boris’s announcement, and the immediate priority for all organisations, is to ensure they are doing a thorough risk assessment and taking all necessary steps to provide a safe working environment for their staff. 

Individual companies are taking different approaches, for example:

  • Capital One have said they will continue working from home for at least another four months.
  • Standard Chartered will continue to work from home and the decision to return to the office will be at the discretion of individual employees.
  • Barclays have observed that social distancing requirements will reduce the capacity of the lifts in their Canary Wharf HQ to a level that will make it infeasible to get their entire workforce into and out of the building on a daily basis. They are actively questioning the need for large HQ buildings going forward and considering making use of office capacity in their branch network.
  • Google and Facebook are both continuing working from home until at least the end of the year.
  • Twitter have said their employees can work from home indefinitely.

Of course, it’s not only the workplace environment itself that needs to be considered, but also travel arrangements for staff getting to and from work, the availability of schools and childcare and, most importantly of all, employees’ trust in their employers’ commitment to providing them with a safe working environment.

Transitioning back to business as “usual” 

Cathy and Aaron have been using their 12 Point People Model for Crisis Management to help their clients work through these issues. In particular, there is a continued need to focus on the supporting activities that have proved so vital in enabling people to work from home, as this is clearly going to continue for an extended period, perhaps indefinitely. 

Additionally, though, the focus is now on the activities needed for the transition back to business as usual (whatever that may be). If this means bringing people back to the workplace, then this means:

  • Conducting the (government mandated) risk assessment to determine the measures needed to make the workplace “Covid-19 secure”.
  • Developing a phased approach to restarting each area of the business and working out who needs to come back, and when, in order to implement this plan.
  • Developing an open and transparent communication plan to keep employees involved and engaged as the plan is put into action. 
  • Undertaking scenario planning to maintain the agility needed to adapt to the changing environment, as government guidance evolves and as customer demand dictates.
  • Maintaining flexibility and agility, for example by making use of the ability to put staff on furlough and take them off again more quickly from August onwards. 
  • Preparing for a possible second spike in Covid-19 cases, leading to renewed lockdown and a return to working from home.  

There is no doubt, the transition back to work is going to be more difficult and complicated to manage than the initial lockdown itself. It will be a challenge for leaders to set the right tone, given that some people will be excited to come back to work, while others may have had bereavements or still be looking after relatives who are at risk.

Organisations that have an international presence have the advantage that they can apply the lessons they are learning in countries that are further ahead than the UK.

Q&A

Boris’s announcement on Sunday and the subsequent 50-page guidance, were the first opportunity for businesses to really begin to understand the approach to easing the lockdown. As this has not left much time for detailed planning, would you advise businesses to take this slowly?

  • Firstly, it’s important to note that many companies, for example those in the manufacturing and construction industries, have been trying to work throughout this crisis – so for them, this is simply additional guidance on what they should be doing. 
  • For companies that have been in lockdown, with employees working from home or furloughed, the return to work is clearly a much bigger challenge and, yes, they will need to proceed with caution.
  • The onus is now very much on the employer and the Human Resources Directors we are talking to are all taking this slowly. They are very much aware of how difficult this will be.
  • They have to consider a lot more than just the working environment itself. They also have to think about how their employees will get to work. Not everyone can walk, cycle or drive and many will be worried about how safe it is to use public transport. 
  • If they are based in a multi-occupancy building where they can’t control the shared spaces (reception, lifts etc.), they need to be confident about these arrangements.
  • Ultimately, their focus is on their duty of care to their employees and on building the levels of trust and engagement that will be needed to get people safely back to work. 

We have all been exposed to constant messaging about the dangers of going out and being in proximity to other people. Will this create psychological challenges for people returning to work?

  • Yes, this is a real challenge, people are clearly worried about coming back to work. The psychological impact could be immense, particularly as people will be coming back to a work environment that is both physically and socially distanced. In many cases, they will have had more social interaction while working from home than they will get in their reconfigured office space.
  • One way to counter this is to share good news stories from people who have returned to work, talking about how comfortable they feel and the level of confidence they have in the arrangements that have been made to ensure their safety. Another approach is to address the fear of the unknown by providing video walkthroughs and interviews with people already back at work. 
  • Ultimately, this comes down to leadership and communication, from the very top to the individual team leaders, and from them to each employee, to say “this is what we’ve done to ensure you have a safe place to work”. 

Will Human Resources Directors find time to consider the gender and diversity issues implicit in the decisions they are having to make about how and when people return to work?

  • If they aren’t, then of course they should be. In most cases, this is just coming onto the radar as they think through all of these related issues. 
  • One big positive here is that the extended period of working from home has demonstrated that flexible working arrangements do work (so this is no longer a potential excuse to deny requests to work from home). 
  • In fact, there is actually a productivity risk in bringing people back to the office. In many cases productivity has actually increased while working from home and bringing people back to inefficient, socially distanced workplaces could result in a significant reduction in productivity. 
  • There is also the issue of schooling and childcare. Even when the schools go back, it is quite possible that many parents will keep their children home until they are completely satisfied its safe for them to return to school. We may be able to learn from other countries here, for example in the Netherlands, where the schools have remained open, less than 10% of children have been kept home.

Is there a risk that people will feel pressured to return to work on the basis that “real people return, others don’t”?

  • This is really a question of organisational values.
  • It shouldn’t be an issue, provided the focus is on outputs, productivity and impact (rather than presenteeism) and provided leadership set this tone from the top.

What happens if staff refuse to come back to work in the office?

  • Ultimately, employees have the right not to come to work if they feel they are in imminent danger. 
  • The best approach is to engage in a conversation about what it is they feel is missing and what you can do to help and to make them feel more comfortable about returning. 

What about staff in regulated industries? 

  • Some employees, for example traders in capital markets firms, are subject to strict regulation on their working environment (for example, to prevent fraud or collusion). 
  • Where these staff have been working from home, they have generally been subject to some form of virtual compliance.
  • The question is whether the regulators will accept these virtual compliance measures longer term, if working from home continues for an extended period. 
  • It’s quite possible the long-term solution will require changes to the regulations, so liaison with the regulatory authorities will need to be part of the transition to business as usual. 

Are staff in smaller businesses keener to come back to work?

  • Quite possibly, yes, partly due to a greater sense of community and stronger company values, and partly due to their more acute awareness of their jobs depending on the company’s successful recovery from this crisis. 

In the manufacturing sector, will we be able to pay overtime to staff who we’ve brought back from furlough, while others remain furloughed? 

  • This is really a question of fairness. 
  • If the staff who are back at work are there because they, alone, have the particular skills that are needed, then this should be OK.
  • But if there is an element of arbitrariness in who is back at work and who is still on furlough, then it might be better, in the interests of fairness, to rotate the staff in order to share the opportunity for reward. 

Conclusion

Boris’s announcement signalled the beginning of a gradual, phased return to work. The government will set the overall pace and provide guidance and support – for example, by extending the furlough scheme. 

However, the onus is now on employers to lead the way in getting their people back to work. There are still a great many unanswered questions and, while going into lockdown was a lot like flicking a switch, coming out is going to be far more challenging. 

This is a uniquely complex situation that requires a great deal of innovation, agility and collaboration. The key to success will be each company’s organisational values, transparency and focus on the duty of care to provide a safe working environment. 

The “new normal” is going to be a hybrid world, with a mix of working from home and working from the office. Getting back to work will be as much about building that hybrid world as it will be about returning to work.   

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