Part Two of the Storm: Back to Work

Posted Jun 4, 2020 3:18:07 PM

“Storms draw something out of us that calm seas don’t.”

A particularly pertinent quote by American author and church figure Bill Hybels that embraces an overwhelmingly positive perspective on adversity, and one with which, one hopes, we will soon be able to look back on this pandemic. Of course, storms are not always entirely over when you think they are…

Much will be said, written and disputed about the health & safety aspects of returning to our work environments after the coronavirus lockdown. Most of the discussion will focus on controlling the spread of the virus and minimising physical risk, and these are very important factors on which others will be more qualified to comment than I.

There is another, arguably far more important aspect, to consider. How do your staff feel?

Although change is more or less a constant in the workplace nowadays, we have experienced completely unexpected ‘once in a lifetime’ events over the past few months; moving rapidly along a spectrum of uncertainty from ‘it won’t affect the Western world’, to panic (and panic buying), to complete lockdown. Now, as restrictions begin to ease and we start to move forward, these changes can feel just as scary after getting used to the comfort and safety of our homes. Even those that consider themselves immune to the effects of change will have experienced emotional instability at times this spring.

Many businesses will have suffered financial pain because of the lockdown, and for them the understandable temptation will be to focus on the numbers. But this may prove to be a regrettable strategy in the longer term.

The psychological impact of the last few months has been immense, and although those that are still working, or have been furloughed, are able to recognise their relative good fortune, rarely has the collective turmoil amongst workers been so great. I imagine that most of us will have something positive to take away from the lockdown, but we have to recognise that lots of negative emotions have been rife: fear, guilt, loneliness, frustration, boredom, anger, sadness, helplessness, to mention a few.

Consequently, there are widely conflicting views on the easing of restrictions and, of course, returning to the workplace. Managing this should be far higher on the list of priorities than the numbers for the next few months as ultimately, how well companies manage these different groups will impact on how they perform.

There are five broad categories that people fall into: ‘Trusting Optimists’, ‘Supportive But Scared’, ‘Impractical, ‘Evidence Seekers’ and ‘Scared But No Choice’. Let’s look at these a little closer.

Trusting Optimists

This group just want to get back to normal and trust that everything will be okay. On the face of it, this is the easiest group to manage. However, their carefree approach may anger and worry others and health and safety breaches are most likely to come from these individuals. It is important to be proactive rather than reactive here, set rules and enforce them in order to retain this trust.

Supportive But Scared

They want the same as the ‘Trusting Optimists’, but they are anxious about leaving the comfort and perceived safety of lockdown. This group need to see management taking their concerns seriously and will appreciate flexibility. They have got comfortable in their home set-up and will need some time to readjust. 

Impractical

Some people will simply not be able to return to the workplace just yet, due to childcare or personal health reasons. Flexible arrangements are needed for this group, most likely the flexibility to continue to work from home. This doesn’t mean they don’t want to return to work, and employers need to recognise that this is an imperfect situation for staff. 

Evidence Seekers

These people will say they are willing to return to work but would like to see others trial it first. They are fearful and need to see evidence that will build their confidence. This group is similar to ‘Supportive But Scared’, but feel less emotional about the situation.

Scared But No Choice

This is possibly the most important group to identify, and should not be confused with ‘Trusting Optimists’. Although they might appear like they are ready to get back to work, this is because they feel like they have to despite their instincts telling them otherwise. Maybe they fear they will lose their jobs if they don’t return. Or, those currently on furlough may not be able to afford living on a reduced income. Maybe their home life is not conducive to working, or even safe. Sensitive and flexible management of this group is essential.

Across the groups there are common factors too. For example, almost everyone will be looking forward to the social aspect of being back at work. It is important to play on this and make the return to work a positive change for staff. 

A Smooth Transition

There are a number of ways to consider ensuring a smooth transition back into the working environment, for instance:

  • A phased return
    • Phasing out home working and phasing in office working over a period of time.
    • Use of annual leave to effect a phased return to ‘normal’ e.g. over the first few weeks (or even months) back in the office, some people may feel more comfortable taking one or two days of leave each week in order to ‘ease’ themselves back in.   
  • Working half days at home and half in the office initially.
  • Allowing shift patterns to emerge i.e. by having longer office opening hours and enabling staff to work in shifts so social distancing is achievable.
  • Giving staff the flexibility to work around family and home commitments.
  • A clear set of guidelines to establish health and safety and social distancing rules, including ‘what if’ procedures.

Health and safety precautions do not in themselves address emotions. However, a carefully considered and appropriate presence of safety factors will create confidence and trust within the workplace, something that is needed now more than ever.

The only predictable thing for the next couple of months will be unpredictability. There is no ‘one size fits all’, but across the board the best way to manage that effectively is flexibly. Although flexibility removes certainty to a degree, and businesses thrive on certainty, it will increase the likelihood that your business will weather this next phase of the storm. If you manage that, then you will truly have drawn some long-lasting good from this passing storm.

Our panel of highly qualified experts can help companies at all stages of development to implement a successful and structured ‘back to work’ plan of attack. Contact us for more information.

By Stuart Colligon, Director at Auxesia

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