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Back to the Workplace

Posted on 2 June 2020


Earlier this month, Mishcon de Reya surveyed a small sample of HR leaders from businesses across the media, retail, professional services, charity, technology and energy sectors.

Our team at Mishcon wanted to know their thoughts around the return of their workforces to the workplace amid Covid-19, whether from furlough or home working: what they were concerned about; the barriers they face; and how they propose (or hope) to overcome them. 

We set out Part I of the findings below: Concerns and Barriers. In Part II, we will cover what our respondents plan to do, and what they believe may help them, to tackle the challenges identified in Part I.

Our hope is that this blog will encourage discussion and a cross-pollination of ideas as HR professionals across all sectors face one of the most difficult challenges many have encountered, and perhaps ever will encounter, in their careers. We do not claim that our findings are the "definitive" take on these important issues. Rather, they are merely what we discovered from our survey and conversations with HR leaders. We would be very interested to hear what others have to say about the topics raised, and invite you to share your thoughts in the comments box of the LinkedIn post here shared by HR Tech Partnership, with whom we have collaborated on this piece.

Part I: Concerns and Barriers

Perhaps unsurprisingly, our respondents' concerns can be summed up in one word: "safety". However, as all were acutely aware, ensuring the safety of their workforces is a complex and multi-faceted beast.

First, most were considering a phased return to the workplace and were faced with the issue of selecting whom to invite back to the workplace, and when. For employers with clear "key employees" – i.e. individuals who need to be physically present in order for the workplace to operate – the decision may be largely made for them. However, a number of complicating factors remain, both in relation to key employees and others. Our respondents foresaw potential selection difficulties with employees who are themselves vulnerable individuals; who may need to shield; and/or who have caring responsibilities. Our survey results also highlighted concerns about potential discrimination risks with these groups, as well as the psychological impact on many employees, both in terms of the time spent away from the workplace, and the return itself. 

Second is the question of how employees actually get to the workplace, with "travel to work" consistently cited by participants as the most significant barrier to a successful return to the workplace.  This was also echoed by their own workforces, with those who had surveyed their employees finding that worries about the commute were substantial and widespread. Particularly where public transport is concerned, this remains an area that is almost entirely out of employers' hands. 

Third, is the workplace itself. Our survey results indicated that fresh approaches will be needed across the board in relation to a number of workplace features, such as floor design, communal areas, lifts, flow of staff within buildings, and hot-desking. Many were also concerned that new measures would be needed to deal with hygiene specifically, the provision of PPE and deep-cleaning the premises. Another major issue was potentially having to test employees. Concerns included: how testing would work in practice; whether it would be limited to temperature-checking (or involve, say, more complex analyses relating to immunity); and how this would be accommodated in the workplace, with some respondents worried, for instance, about queues at entrances undermining social distancing measures, and the handling of an increased amount of personal data. Added to that, many felt that the need to conduct individual risk assessments, and the sheer scale of having to assess and potentially test an entire workforce, would mean that this has the potential to be a significant barrier to returning to the workplace.

A common theme ran through each of the above: the mental health and wellbeing of staff. Challenges of ensuring that staff feel comfortable about returning to work were particularly noted, highlighting the importance of being able to convince employees, and their families, that the workplace is safe.  Those respondents who had employees on-site at the time of our survey were especially alive to this point, reporting that such employees often expressed worry, and were at times even resentful, about being required to attend the workplace in the current climate. Our respondents anticipated that such concerns would only intensify as increasing numbers returned to the workplace. Effective communication, not just in relation to the allaying of concerns, but also more generally, is a key issue for most.

Finally, our survey brought to light the pressures that HR leaders and their teams were under. The current crisis has added immeasurably to their workloads, as they try to stay abreast of rapidly-evolving developments, produce updated policies and guidance, and communicate the same to their workforces, as well as looking to the longer term reshaping of businesses. Many noted how difficult it has been to give proper attention to other aspects of their roles and the impact this will have on the ability to get back to business.   

Part I: Summary

In summary, a successful return to work will be intricately bound with there being a safe workplace to which to return. The challenge of creating a safe workplace would appear to be two-fold: first, it involves taking proactive, effective steps to minimise employees' exposure to Covid-19; but it also involves being seen to take such steps, and ensuring that employees are in no doubt that their concerns about safety are shared by their employers.  

With such numerous challenges confronting employers, what practical steps are they taking or planning to take, and what are the enablers that would help HR leaders and their employers overcome those challenges? This will be the focus of the second part of our blog: Part II: Practical steps and Enablers.

Practical guidance for COVID-19
Read the latest COVID-19 related updates on our hub.




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