In Part I of this blog, we discussed the main challenges faced by HR leaders who participated in our survey in terms of returning their workforces to the workplace, and what they considered the key barriers to be.
In this Part II, Practical Steps and Enablers, we explore what respondents to our survey identified as potential ways of overcoming these challenges and barriers – both the steps they propose to take (or are, in fact, already taking), and the types of support and guidance which they felt would facilitate as smooth a transition as possible.
It was clear from our survey results that a phased or partial return was key to all return to work programmes. That said, there was a wide range of answers in terms of the actual number of employees that could be allowed onsite at any one time without breaching current social-distancing rules, and the minimum occupancy required to make opening worthwhile, with our respondents citing anywhere between 10% – 50% of the workforce.
With a partial return, HR leaders have to consider which employees to invite to return and when. Most respondents preferred to let employees choose their own working arrangements in the short-term future, though this brought with it the added challenge of ensuring that the technological infrastructure was capable of supporting new or continued remote-working where required. Some were offering less choice, and were planning to introduce staggered hours and/or cohort working (i.e. where designated teams work alternate days or weeks), with technology again playing a vital role, including for the purposes of enabling social distancing onsite.
Our respondents were also acutely aware that employees' mental health and wellbeing had to be factored into such decision-making, and were conscious that flexible working arrangements needed to be considered in the context of an individual's needs, circumstances and fears. Further, many mentioned that their businesses had implemented enhanced mental health initiatives during lockdown, and anticipated that employees would need, and indeed benefit from, increased support when returning to work.
Regarding employees' commutes (which we identified in Part I as having the potential to be the most problematic barrier to a return to the workplace), our survey indicated support for a "public transport framework" under which certain measures were temporarily implemented to facilitate a safe return to work. Possibilities highlighted included staggering travel during the working day in order to ease congestion, particularly at peak times, and increasing visible cleaning of transportation to provide reassurance to commuters. In terms of the workplace itself, one respondent had implemented parking concessions for those already working onsite, and others spoke of the need for increased bicycle storage capacity.
The use of testing to aid a safe return is a consideration for many employers. Our respondents were keen to see guidance on such issues as data protection and communicating with employees, and would welcome technology solutions which are both user-friendly and cost-effective, including in relation to individual risk assessments. In particular, most are looking for ways of minimising the potential administrative burden, especially when it comes to conducting tests, collating and verifying results, and storing and processing the resultant data.
In fact, technology emerged as a key enabler in general. For most, in addition to testing and controlling the physical space, the immediate focus was on being able to use technology to inform staff of the latest policies and codes of conduct, and to verify their agreement to the same. However, there was also recognition that even in a world post lock down, aspects of "virtual people management", including performance management, learning and coaching, will continue and will increasingly have to be managed through some form of technology solution.
Finally, our survey identified a range of forms of support that would aid HR leaders in their planning and implementation of return to work programmes :
- A "Code of Practice for Employers" dealing with such issues as health and safety, risk assessments, minimum workplace adjustments, mental wellbeing, and processing health-related personal data. Ideally, this would include practical steps for employers and checklists to simplify compliance.
- A "Code of Conduct for Employees" which details the behaviours expected of employees, including in relation to health and safety.
- The publication of a standardised pack of policies (or tool kits) designed to establish a minimum standard of conduct in the workplace (which could be tailored to a specific workplace or industry, if appropriate). Particularly welcome would be provisions relating to bereavement leave and mental health.
- Access to innovative technology solutions which enable employers both to communicate new policies to employees, and to capture and record employees' agreement to the same.
- The publication of a framework in relation to data safeguarding and privacy issues, including guidance on handling categories of personal data which employees may be reluctant to share.
- The publication of guidance on conducting individual risk assessments safely and efficiently, including how employers can prove compliance with expected standards.
- Access to a repository of verified research and knowledge to enable employers to make informed, data-driven decisions as to risk.
- Access to and/or the provision of appropriate PPE to address risk and give employees the confidence to return to the workplace.
- A phasing-out of the furlough scheme, including being able to access furlough on a part-time basis. Since our survey, a flexible furlough scheme has been announced by the Government.
Part II: Summary
No one is expecting that things will get "back to normal" any time soon. As such, the current priority is adjusting to a new reality, managing a phased return and working to reassure staff at each step of the way that returning to work can, and will, be safe.
In order to get back to business, in whatever form, our respondents were calling for certainty – simple rules and procedures, supported by technology whenever possible - as to how best to respond to these unprecedented challenges, while ensuring compliance with law and best practice.
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