Consulting with staff to find out what will make them feel comfortable when returning to their workplace after lockdown rules are relaxed is crucial to ensure that the plan will be successful in protecting staff and clients from COVID-19.
Many businesses that have had to pause operations due to the COVID-19 outbreak are creating new work concepts that protect employees and clients from contracting the disease when services resume including one-way systems, desk screens, facial recognition entry software, personal protective equipment (PPE), sanitizer stations and daily self-certified COVID-19 assessments. But it is essential that those who are going to carry out the tasks based on the new concept are consulted before, during and after the plan is implemented to ensure its effectiveness.
Returning to the workplace after such a long break is likely to be challenging for many from a psychological perspective. Some may fear that public transportation will be too crowded to allow for social distancing or that the measures implemented by the business at the workplace may not keep them safe. Justified or not, such expectations are likely to cause anxiety for employees that can deeply impact their overall health and wellbeing and consequently, their work performance as stress levels rise.
A May 1 poll by Ipsos MORI (opens a new window) showed that 35% of responders were “not comfortable” about returning to work, while 49% felt “very/fairly comfortable”; 61% of responders were not comfortable about using public transport. It is natural that taking the train or bus, or driving into work, after being away for such a long time, will create some level of anxiety. Line managers should encourage employees to talk about their fears or anxieties related to a return to the workplace.
Employers can help reduce anxiety among staff in several ways, for example by helping employees to understand the risks of returning to work and manage their genuine fears.
In addition to discussing risks and options with experts from health and safety, security, facilities and mental health disciplines, the need to communicate with staff with absolute clarity and transparency at all stages of the process is critical to ensure that they will follow the new rules.
Consultation with staff helps to fine tune the concept, address any concerns employees may have and make final operational decisions that staff feel comfortable with.
The basis of the process is a staff survey that finds out how employees have experienced homeworking (if applicable) and how they feel about a return to the workplace.
Each business will need to develop its own return to the workplace plan. The following model may serve as guidance to help manage uncertainty and minimise harm.
Carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment and share the results with the people who work in your organisation
Have cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures in line with government/health care organisations’ guidance
Take all reasonable steps to help people work from home
Take all reasonable steps to maintain the required minimum distance in the workplace
Where people cannot adhere to the minimum distance, do everything practical to manage the transmission risk
Checklist for the process to return to the workplace:
Get approval for return to work programme from leadership team
Plan to prepare your building for occupancy
Arrange to conduct a pre-occupancy inspection and deep cleaning programme
Train your facilities manager (FM) and cleaning teams on good hygiene matters and establish a daily cleaning schedule
Review any service which may present a health issue and establish how you can minimise risk
Test all emergency and life safety systems
Agree who will return to work by considering the following:
Workplace distancing and space availability
Work routines to achieve workplace distancing
Vulnerable or at risk staff
Staff who have child or care responsibilities
Travel arrangements to, where possible, reduce the need for public transport
Establish workspace distancing protocols based on government advice. The following should be considered:
Staggered arrival and departure
Building entrance and/or exit protocols
Pantries and any space where food is prepared and eaten
Meetings with clients
Security and emergency arrangements
You also need to consider the consequences of increased anxiety caused by how the return to work may lead to workplace aggression and/or violence. And importantly, establish a protocol to respond to expected spikes in the outbreak. This will ensure a quick response if you need to send your team home without disruption to service.
After establishing a return to work programme one person should be appointed to lead communication with staff. The more senior the person, the better. The next step is to arrange a welcome back to work programme for staff and managers to inform them of the 'new' workplace protocols. This should include:
Workplace distancing protocol and building cleaning arrangements
Travel and arrival arrangements, particularly for those who cycle to work or use changing facilities
Relaxation of car share programme, if in place
Government advice on use of public transport
Working arrangements including breaks
Workstation health and hygiene requirements
Eating and drinking and use of fridges for personal food
Ill-health reporting and staff support programme
End of day protocols, where an alternative team may be working on site
Travel to and from client sites or meetings
Vehicle hygiene requirements and checks
Ensure that health and hygiene is managed and maintained by:
Identifying key touch points in the workplace and providing appropriate sanitation stations to allow hands to be cleaned
Determining cleaning frequencies which need to consider an initial clean of surfaces and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system
Considering core cleaning activities and providing staff with appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and being visible to staff during the working day
Ensuring statutory testing is undertaken safely
As a result of the implemented safety measures, businesses should review food preparation and server areas to ensure workspace distancing can be maintained. Waste arrangements need to be revisited to include specific procedures for PPE worn by cleaners and FM staff.
E-learning tools allow for a flexible, customisable and personalised communication to address safety challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lockton’s partner Cardinus provides e-learning courses (opens a new window) that address some of the mental health challenges of returning to the workplace and help employers to get the right safety message to staff while evidencing that learning has taken place.
The business recovery is a key stage. Leaders should monitor the effectiveness of the return to work programme to ensure that it remains effective and is supporting those who have returned to work. It can also be used to restore confidence in the business.
Review lessons learnt from the outbreak and ask for feedback. Critique what you've learnt and use this to improve.
Review and update your Business Continuity Plan. Most organisations will have had their plan activated by the outbreak so we would encourage you to learn from this.
Review what you've learned from the period of time people have been working from home. Are there positives to be had? The lockdown may have reconnected families and given people time to look at what's important to them. Teams may also have worked in a different way.
More background on the process of restarting preparations can be found here (opens a new window).
For further information, please contact:
Chris Rofe, Senior Vice President, Employee Benefits Lockton
Tel: +44 (0)20 7933 2876 | Email: email@example.com (opens a new window)
Stephen Smith, Marketing Manager Cardinus
Tel: +44 (0) 207 469 0200 | Email: Stephen.firstname.lastname@example.org (opens a new window)