Bosses have a battle on their hands to prove that after months working from home, employees’ physical presence is both necessary and safe. Early indications suggest that the pandemic will have a significant impact upon the mental health of employees for months or even years to come, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). As early as two weeks into lockdown, employees were reporting a range of health effects including negative impacts on mental health and overall well-being.
When people who may have experienced anxiety, depression or trauma during the coronavirus lockdown finally return to the office, nothing will feel normal. Hand sanitiser, floor markings, extra laptops so staff don’t share – building inspector Geoff Wilkinson at London-based Wilkinson Construction Consultants decked out his office after the Prime Minister told construction to reopen first in early May.
Like any other business in the UK, people will have to work alone or in shifts, avoid group meetings, eat by themselves and forget any social interaction with their peers. And that’s without factoring in the risk of exposing themselves to the virus when travelling to and from work.
“They all understandably have concerns, like caring for elderly relatives”, he says. To ease the return, he has calculated how many hours of work are needed and lets staff set their own schedules.
And safety-proofing offices without making them feel like prisons will be tricky. Russell Corlett, health and safety director at employment law firm Peninsula, says companies are installing thermal cameras to detect raised temperatures, while losing things that encourage cohesiveness, like the tea round.
Wilkinson’s team is living through that change. “No one offers to make each other tea or coffee anymore, each preferring to wash their own cup and make their own, just to be sure,” he says, “it is quite a culture change, we have always prided ourselves on everyone, including the managing director, offering to make drinks.”
His office has grass outside that allows employees to sit and eat socially distanced lunch on warm days, “but how we deal with this in winter if restrictions are still in place will be another matter,” he says.
Returning to the office as the lockdown eases will affect staff morale. “Employers must get it right to ensure coming back isn’t depressing,” says Kate Palmer, associate director also at Peninsula employment lawyers.
Crowded tubes, trains and buses will be a big safety issue for office workers in major UK cities, says Heather Bolton of Unmind, a workplace mental health service. Out-of-town staff driving to the outskirts then completing journeys on a folding bike is one solution, but may not be an option for many people.
“Many employees might find it hard to share their anxieties,” Bolton says. Emotions could run high. “Some employees will feel more anxious and contamination-conscious than others, which could cause conflict within teams,” she says. “Sleep may also suffer, as they try to adapt to stricter office-based routines.”
Research by Unmind found eight in ten employers had more staff requests for mental health support during lockdown. Companies expect similar figures when they reopen – 70 per cent intend to spend more on mental health services.
Companies are not only trying to figure out best practice when they unlock offices; they have to convince their workers to come back in the first place. In a mid-May survey of GMB union members 80 per cent feared a return to work could give their family coronavirus. The government message is “work from home if you can’, but in the GMB survey 60 per cent expected that they would be pressured to return because of their company’s culture of presenteeism. Just 18 per cent thought their workplace would be safe, what Wilkinson calls “the biggest issue we face”.
The use of apps such as Xero, Slack and Google docs have allowed staff at accountancy firm The Wow Company to keep clients happy from home, says co-founder Paul Bulpitt, so he plans to open an office only if staff want it.
“Some live alone in small flats with no outside space. Many have young children they have had to entertain or educate all day,” he says. “We are seeing if we could open at least one office for them”.
Bulpitt admits just housing 50 per cent of staff isn’t smart for productivity. “It’s easier for everyone to work from home until it’s safe to reopen completely,” he says.
Bulpitt says that his staff are included in discussions on how the company will return to work, so they don’t feel like it is being imposed on them top-down.
Companies should be honest about the change that is coming, says Bolton. “Be clear on how things will operate in the office and manage expectations about what a return to work will look like.”
Workers may have to quickly learn the jobs of colleagues who aren’t in the office. In his consultancy offices across the South East of England Wilkinson has a rota – employees cover different roles or unfamiliar locations – which he hopes “will mean we emerge with a more multi-disciplinary team and improve teamwork”.
Being in an 9-5 office routine again will mean losing the autonomy and flexibility of daily routines for some, or more time away from partners and children. Even those eager to return could be in for a shock.
“With social distancing, altered layouts and fewer employees in the office, those lonely at home and desperate to get back may feel frustrated and disappointed with the reality of it,” says Bolton.
“Find ways to boost employee morale – like socially distanced team-building exercises or flexibility in working days,” she says.
Unhappy employees who refuse to return to the office, even in the middle of a pandemic, are on shaky ground legally. “Unless a permanent change to working arrangements was made employees would be expected to return when asked,” says Palmer.
Workers with at least 26 weeks’ continuous service have a right to request flexible working. But an employer can refuse flexible working (including homeworking) requests, and the company has three months from the initial request to make a final decision: during those three months you will have to go into your workplace anyway.
More working from home is strongly expected as a legacy of lockdown though and Bolton says employers shouldn’t wait for things to go back to the way they were, or act like they will.
“This is a ‘new normal’, not a return to normality,” she says. “Remember this when making plans to help staff through this transition”.
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