The office, the new norm

Caitlyn Owen
How can you manage the safe return of your workforce when the office re-opens? How do you look after their welfare, while meeting business objectives?

Employers are beginning to plan the transition back to workplace attendance now the government has confirmed that some of the Covid-19 restrictions can be eased in specific circumstances. Closure, furlough and remote working operations had to take place at speed, without time for forward planning, and we are living with the results of that necessary haste. Most employers are now trying to assess how best to accommodate a phased return and overcome and avoid the earlier issues generated with the closures. There will be a lot to think about in a relatively short timescale but have you considered it all? In the second of our series of articles, Caitlyn Owen explores further how we can support you adopting the Faithful+Gould key principles of Property, People and Technology.  

Workforce needs to be at the heart of everything

Workspace issues are typically focused around the built environment and the financial matters relating to this. Whilst these will remain integral to any decision making process, the heart of the business is your people and the plan needs to be centred around them.

Be informed on how to return

Before any workspace behaviours and infrastructure can be implemented, it’s important to assess employee expectations and needs. No one knows what the next 12 months will look like, but everyone knows that uncertainty drives anxiety. This is the time for considered employee engagement, honestly acknowledging that there may be more questions than answers right now. Employers need to communicate their thought process and intentions clearly and concisely, allowing employees to express their experiences of remote working and their needs in the return phase. This should be done iteratively allowing the plan to be developed on feedback and the initial phase could be captured in a tailored questionnaire assessing the key points.

A new understanding of agility

Before the pandemic, there were flexible working opportunities to suit family and lifestyles, and many people regularly worked from home to minimise the need to travel or to avoid workplace distraction. Now, ironically, a very prescriptive form of agile working has been imposed, with people adapting their workstyle due to other commitments in the home and often without the usual limits on working hours. Good agile practices have increased and it is key that these are retained, along with a growing realisation that 24/7 working isn’t in anyone’s interests.

Managing attendance

Limiting attendance is likely to be required for some time, but there’s no point in calculating desk utilisation rates and distances without knowing what will suit staff. Engagement and understanding are key as we can’t assume that what suited them before (and did we really ask them?) will work now, and one size doesn’t fit all.

Individuals, not assumptions

There are multiple valid reasons for flexible working requests, not only family related, and, as at any other time, all must be given reasonable and equitable consideration in the inclusive and compliant organisation. The employee working in their fully equipped home office has had a different experience from the colleague balancing their laptop on the bed in a noisy flat-share. New considerations include childcare, home education, technology gaps, self-isolation/shielding, for themselves or those they care for and parents working alternate shifts. All of these factors will continue to be relevant for some time and will heavily influence the return you get from your people.

There’s now an excellent opportunity for employee-led innovation, to enable people to work at their best and to help increase productivity in a sustained manner. It is generally accepted that organisations with a high level of employee engagement report increased productivity no matter which metric is used. So, ask them how they have found remote working. Some want to race back to the office, whereas others have enjoyed more freedom over their hours and workstyle but capturing this intelligence allows you to make informed decisions creating an environment increasing productivity further.

Consider the impact of what has already happened

Some staff are more vulnerable at this time, due to their own or their family’s physical or mental health, or their experience of isolation, strained relationships, caring responsibilities, financial difficulties, or loss during the pandemic. Not every employee will voice their difficulties unless specifically and sensitively asked, but their return to the workplace will be affected nonetheless. Employers should plan how to assess wellbeing, consider signing up to a referral programme or training Mental Health First Aiders, inform themselves on appropriate signposting, and, above all, listen to employees.

Transitional pressures

Workload strains should be considered as the business seeks to catch up on productivity. A plan will be needed for the re-engagement of furloughed staff, including the management of their integration with colleagues who were retained. There may be understandable friction between these groups and some frustration or lack of trust (in both groups) towards the employer, alongside fears of redundancy.

The new normal

The office won’t look and feel like it did before. As organisations move towards making their building operational,  there are many people-related practicalities. A plan for capacity management on any given day should be devised, with ground rules around desk allocation and behaviours clearly communicated.

As well as desk configuration and cleaning, employers will have to clarify practices around communal areas, social distancing, collaborative working (how to achieve both?), visitors, hand sanitising, masks, and eating and drinking. Some staff will need reassurance on safety, others may be more in need of compliance reminders.

Social interaction is an important consideration in reducing attendance—have good practices emerged during isolation? How has team cohesion been maintained and how will this work going forward? A cultural change will also be required if the organisation has previously encouraged/tolerated presenteeism, to prevent the risk of employees attending when even mildly unwell.

Professional help in transitioning the workforce

Faithful+Gould’s Workspace team specialises in managing people change and gathering a solid evidence-base for behavioural, operational and design changes in the workplace to adapt to new circumstances. We help organisations harness staff engagement, so that their use of the workspace supports business objectives.

In this new and unusual situation, our change impact assessments and business readiness analysis are helping clients shape a sensible, safe and healthy return to workplace attendance as they define their new normal. 

For more information on how our Workspace team can help you transition your workforce, please contact one of our experts below. 

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