What if the return to work is on hold?

With the return to work on hold, don’t forget employee wellbeing.

With the economy flatlining, the government has been keen to encourage people back to work, but the business response has been mixed, to say the least. Some have delayed the big return, others have put pressure on employees to repopulate the workplace – but most sit somewhere in between. The result is the most confused work landscape imaginable.
At Harvey John, we have set up two ‘bubbles’ to enable social distancing, with half the team in one week, and the other half in the week after. Many other companies have adopted simple compromises.

The idea was to gradually repopulate the office and eventually bring the whole team together, but this is looking increasingly unlikely with the all-important ‘R’ number edging above one. Covid has proven to be stubbornly difficult to eradicate, and the big return to work looks like it is firmly on hold.

The UK workforce appears to be particularly hesitant. A survey published in the FT suggested staff in the US and UK were more negative about returning to the workplace than their counterparts in Germany, France, Italy, Mexico, Singapore and Spain. Sarah Henchoz, the employment partner at law firm Allen & Overy in the UK, told the FT: “We are waiting to see that we don’t rush back and increase infection.”

The government’s desire to see thriving city centres may have to wait. Assessing the results of an academic study commissioned by Cardiff and Southampton Universities, the BBC reported that nine in 10 workers who have worked from home during lockdown would like to continue in some form. “Our analysis suggests there will be a major shift away from the traditional workplace, even when social distancing is no longer a requirement,” said Prof Alan Felstead, of Cardiff University.

I have certainly noticed the trend towards more home working. Prior to lockdown, some law firms were reluctant to fully embrace flexible and agile working including the option to work from home on a regular basis. The lockdown experience has shown them that their fee earners can be just as productive, if not more so, from home and as such they intend to embrace home working going forward. They are happy for it to become the new norm.

Confused messages?

Along with the desire to continue some form of home working, there is the issue of confused messages. A long time has passed since the certainty and simplicity of ‘Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.’

The latest advice is based on the ‘Rule of Six’. Or more accurately the ‘Rules of Six’ as there are so many exemptions and clauses. While seven people can work in the same office, they cannot go to the park together at lunchtime. An outdoor BBQ can only be attended by six people unless you are in the same family or support bubble, but 30 can attend a wedding. Six people from six households can meet at the pub, but two families of four are banned.

The chaotic rules just add to the uncertainty. Is it safe to go to work or not?

Is well-being still a priority?

For employers, it is just as challenging. With some employees at home and some at work, it is a logistical nightmare. It certainly seems that the novelty has worn off for some businesses.

We recently interviewed an in-house lawyer on the subject of working at home. She stated: “We have all got used to working from home. The mental health check-ins aren’t really happening anymore.”

According to a Nuffield Health survey, 80% of Brits feel working from home has had a negative impact on their mental health.

It is a striking contradiction. Most people like to have the option of working from home yet a majority also say it impacts their wellbeing.

So how do employers respond? Perhaps the key is to maintain the proactive policies which were introduced when the lockdown first started. When offices and workplaces shut down back earlier this year, there was a plethora of useful advice to be found online to help with the new way of working.

Best practices

As uncertainty grows again, now is a good time to revisit those best practices. We are all bored with lockdown restrictions, but employee mental health remains paramount.

When working from home, the divide between work and family time can become blurred. For those that live alone, isolation may be the pressing issue.

It is incumbent on managers and leaders to look out for signs of stress and to spot if a team member is struggling. This means asking the right questions and listening to the answers. With larger teams, an employee survey can be a useful tool to gauge how people are coping.

The difficulty is multiplied when some people are working at home and others are in the workplace. In both instances, people should feel confident that they can express how they are feeling. A report in the Harvard Business Review advises that leaders can help by revealing their own vulnerabilities: “The universality of the experience will translate into a decrease in stigma only if people, especially people in power, share their experiences. Being honest about your mental health struggles as a leader opens the door for employees to feel comfortable talking with you about mental health challenges of their own.”

Mental health provision must not be a fashionable fad like clapping for the NHS and relentless Zoom quizzes. The anxiety in society is still with us as we face an uncertain autumn and winter. We all need to look after each other.

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