Back to the office – an employers guide: why communication should be your top priority
I’ve written a lot recently about business survival during the Coronavirus pandemic. These articles have been focused on the importance of meticulously analysing cash flow and all the other parts of your business to continue forward with a lighter, more agile structure that can survive in a challenging economy. The government has a five-point plan to manage the practical aspects of your employees’ return to work. But what about the human aspect of the situation?
While scrutinising what’s good and bad about the business, while making all your contingency plans and projections, please don’t forget that happy and motivated staff are a fundamental factor for success.
We’ve spoken to mental heath and work environment experts, for advice on how to succeed at reopening.
The Practical Guidance
Employee wellbeing is incredibly important. It may not appear directly on a spreadsheet but there is no doubt that a well workforce is an effective one which will always reflect in the bottom line.
On top of the Government’s five-point plan, more can – and should – be done to ensure the physical wellbeing of employees.
Amanda Chadwick, an independent consultant, broadcaster and writer on HR issues, said that while it was compulsory for firms with more than 50 staff to carry out a risk assessment, she recommends all firms do it. But they need to do it now.
“With the return to work being a gradual process, many firms are only just starting their risk assessments – or have not started at all.”
This could mean introducing extra measures such as:
- In factories, restaurants and pubs, shops and offices, where possible introduce one-way systems to minimise contact.
- In shops, store returned items for 72 hours before returning them to the shop floor.
- Have table service only in indoor pubs and restaurants.
- In the hospitality sector, venues expected to collect contact details of customers for the NHS’ test and trace system.
And she is concerned that too few companies have contingency plans in place for a sudden local lockdown, as happened in Leicester at the end of June. “This should be factored into the risk assessment, which needs to be published on the company website so it’s accessible to staff,” she said.
The Human Advice
A safe return to work makes staff happier and more secure, and ultimately a more successful business.
The best way to engage with staff initially, Chadwick says, is through a return to work interview. She said: “It’s important before the staff member comes back that the company ascertains how they have coped with lockdown.
“Employers need to reassure people that they’ve carried out a risk assessment and that the workplace is as safe as it can be.
“As important, the company needs to know what commitments the employee has. Are they a carer? Do they have childcare issues? They might have even experienced the death of a loved one.”
Communication is key. Make sure you or someone else in your organisation is talking to employees and helping them wherever possible. Please ask them to take advice if they need to and consider the type of issues discussed in this article – maybe encourage your staff to have a read too?
Both Maz Alexander, a mental health specialist with Southwark Council and a life coach, and Amanda Chadwick stress the importance of good communication between employer and employee during return to work.
“Employers need explain how they will protect their staff, whether it be around hot-desking, more cleaning, air conditioning – they need to explain the practicalities. Some people worry air conditioning can spread the virus. People are fearing what they don’t know because they haven’t been informed,” Alexander said.
She said employers need to embrace flexible working, including around childcare arrangements, and communicate this to staff. “The pandemic has caused us all to think about the way we work going forward,” she added.
Workplace quango ACAS has plenty of good advice on the subject. Its advice to employers is: “You should know what resources and support you can offer and signpost them clearly. For example, an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) offering staff counselling or ‘drop-in’ sessions with someone from HR or a third party to talk through any issues.
ACAS advises that employers should “do all you reasonably can to encourage positive mental health”. It suggest companies might:
- arrange mental health training for managers and staff.
- appoint mental health ‘champions’ who staff can talk to.
- promote existing wellbeing support, such as counselling.
“You should also remind managers to communicate regularly with their team and support them if they need to have sensitive conversations with team members,” it says on its website.
An Employers View
Pete Smith, CEO of an SME media company in London, said: “We are changing the way we work. People working from home has made us 15% less efficient but that’s a price worth paying for people’s health. Most staff will continue working from home, coming into the office from time to time for meetings, appraisals.
“We have communicated this to employees and they have been appreciative of this.”
But he adds: “Unfortunately, because of the fall-off we’ve had in sales we’re are going to have to make 20% of the staff redundant. Whether the business survives at all we don’t know yet – I’d say it’s 50-50.”
Of his own mental health he said: “I can’t obsess about it anymore. It was incredibly stressful at the start. Of course I do worry, but I’m keeping myself busy with work and outside, bike riding and fishing. And spending time with family since lockdown eased.”