As we begin to see countries around the world starting to relax their lockdown measures and reduce restrictions, businesses are beginning to create plans for a return to a new normal. Early waves from South Korea and Singapore, and now New Zealand, the Nordics, Spain, Italy and others are planning how to ease thousands of employees safely back to work in the coming weeks and months, providing businesses in the UK with the opportunity to learn from examples globally.
In this time of health consciousness and innovation, the attention of our business leaders should begin to turn to how we can help our workers to get safely back to work. This includes planning for what our new normal might look like and how we can encourage individuals to act on the information available and adapt their behaviour accordingly.
Employers in the UK have a significant role to play, with an estimated 3 million people in the workforce before we went into lockdown. When we talk about how to reopen the economy and workplaces, it is crucial to understand that customers and employees want to feel reassured, requiring consistent communication and insight to build trust and instil confidence for a strong, smart restart.
As we look ahead, there are certain new workplace practices and behaviours you should consider, helping to ensure the health and wellbeing of your workforces and restarting the UK’s economy.
A gradual reintroduction
Whilst the Government may release certain restrictions in the coming weeks, we cannot simply flip a switch; the current situation does not allow us to go from ‘off’ to ‘on’ where the economy is concerned. There will be no universal return date for all. Rather, employers will have to be adaptable and people-focused for the foreseeable future to maintain employee confidence, health and safety. We are starting to see examples of this in the UK economy, with organisations such as Jaguar Land Rover, Timpsons and B&Q beginning to reopen stores following a period of planning, which allowed them to assess their ability to implement the necessary social distancing measures.
Some companies are phasing in employees to limit the number of people on site at any given time, easing them back into office life after a prolonged period of social distancing. Shifts could also be staggered to allow continued observation of physical distancing.
More breathing room required
The current need for mindfulness around hygiene and personal space will directly affect the workplaces employees feel comfortable returning to.
Reforms already seen in many locations, including hand sanitiser stands in office foyers, cleaning staff increasing their focus on wiping door handles and other frequently touched surfaces, and encouragement to minimise the number of people sharing an elevator, are likely to continue to be emphasised. Some businesses may also look to mask fittings, temperature-taking and virus-testing to help contain the virus, reduce anxiety and increase worker confidence in the measures being put in place.
Organisations can also consider making more significant changes to the work environment, including new seating arrangements and a reassessment of hot-desking practices.
Over the past decade, many companies have forgone private offices in favour of open plan layouts, with the space allocated per office worker declining as a result. Recent office practices, including benching, when desks are lined up side by side, and hot-desking, where employees do not have designated desks, may been to be temporarily reconsidered until the likelihood of a second peak subsides or a successful vaccine is developed.
In order to allow for the recommended two metre distance between each employee, offices using benching set ups may have to pull apart desks or stagger employees. Similarly, unless more strict cleaning protocols are put into place, employees may prefer a designated workspace which is not shared.
Kate Moore, Director at Darling Associates Architects says: “We believe that big changes will be required to get the UK back to work safely, and we are using spatial planning to help our clients re-plan their existing office layouts for when the lockdown measures are eased.
“The principles for reconfiguring offices must be rooted in maintaining social distancing, practices throughout the workspace. Creating visual and non-intrusive indicators such as different colour carpets or taking the floor, can help to reinforce the right behaviours.
“Creating a one-way travel system around an office and removing seating from meeting rooms could also help with managing the distancing requirements.
“The changes go beyond work being your destination for the day; we are also encouraging organisations to think about how they can help their employees travel to work safely, by doing things like converting existing meeting rooms into cycle stores.”
Rethinking the facetime culture
The ability to work from home for at least a few days a week – long sought after by many workers – may be here to stay.
Prior to the pandemic, many employers refused to let staff work from home either full- or part-time. Part of a ‘culture of presenteeism’ experienced in many workplaces, some employers were sceptical about how productive employees would be if they weren’t in the office.
Contrary to this, research has found that remote workers can often be more productive, more engaged, less stressed more satisfied and less likely to quit than their in-office counterparts. Now that working from home has been shown to be possible for millions of workers, it could be that once social distancing measures are removed, more employers will reconsider workplace requirements. Not only are more employees likely to request this flexibility, as they find a beneficial routine that helps their work life balance, but employers may be able to reconsider office space requirements if less employees are needed onsite.
This shift in workforce structure may also have the unintended consequence of opening up new opportunities for diverse talent pools, including working parents and those with disabilities which make it harder for them to travel to and work in an office environment.
Register for our upcoming webinar, ‘Our New Normal: Managing Your Remote Workforce‘ to get advice on how to remain productive and engaged while social distancing.
Communication is key
Openness and honesty remain key, and it works both ways. The best employers are carrying out pulse surveys, asking people what works for them, what they expect from their employer and how they can do more to help. No one knows all the answers, but clear communication focused on data and insight has undoubtedly saved lives and will assist people to work safely and confidently going forward.
We will return to the future, not the past
Now is the time to embrace a shared vision of tomorrow. This sudden transformation of how we all do business is going to have a lasting effect. Some of these changes present an opportunity for employees to develop a better work-life balance based on their lifestyle. For years we’ve heard the growing chorus of calls for more flexibility, including remote working, and now could be the time for employers to start to offer this, potentially reducing the need for expensive desk space.
Employers must be part of the solution and put the wellbeing of their people at the heart of what they do, helping to protect lives and livelihoods. If we remain connected, open and resilient, we can all get safely back to work – however that manifests itself in the new normal.
Register for our upcoming webinar, ‘Our New Normal: Managing Your Workforce Remotely‘ and discover more about how you can make the most of the current situation as well as prepare for your workforce returning quickly and safely to work.