A full return of employees to the office was supposed to have already begun. Despite protective measures being adhered to, rising COVID19 cases have again prompted a delay. Instead, organisations must judge for themselves who can return to their offices. So how should employers approach this development to maximise productivity, ensure safety and overcome resistance to return?
The partial re-opening of offices in Ireland started in September, with a full return originally set for 22 October. But with a delay imposed, it is clear that there are challenges to overcome. In most of the UK, meanwhile, there is still advisable to work from home where possible, but where offices are again being populated by employees, there is still an obligation to follow official safety guidance.
While most companies have been eager to see their employees working together in one place, employees themselves have embraced the positives of working from home. And some still have genuine anxiety over COVID19.
According to a survey by Beneden Health, 6% of UK employees admitted they had a very real fear of returning to the office as COVID19 restrictions continue to be lifted. Meanwhile, further research from June this year, showed that as many as 56% of UK employees believed they were more productive working from home, and 53% said they felt less stress.
The problem, of course, is the potential fallout that may arise should employers decide to enforce the return to the office at the expense of employee viewpoints. The research shows that 62% of UK companies confirmed they would expect their staff to return to their office posts when requested to.
Perhaps more concerning, however, is the fact that 58% would ‘absolutely’ look for a new job if they weren’t allowed to continue working remotely.
So, the issue of the post-COVID19 return to the office is not very straightforward, and if mishandled could impact on such critical issues as employee wellbeing, employee engagement and ultimately productivity. Recruitment may also be seriously affected.
A Cautious Return
In Ireland, a ‘cautious and careful return to workplaces’ has been called for as part of a revised Work Safely Protocol, with employers, asked to take several aspects into account when deciding who should return to the office post-COVID19.
- That there are appropriate attendance levels, cognisant of public health guidance as reflected in the Work Safely Protocol
- That employers use ‘staggered’ return to work arrangements, such as non-full-time attendance and flexible working hours
- And that attendance is for specific business requirements, and not simply to get employees into one place
Managing A Staggered Return To The Office
- Consider Individual Commitments
- Consider Employee Preferences
- Unreasonable Refusal
Consider any family commitments or concerns that employees might have. COVID19 has not completely gone away. So, governments urge caution to try to ensure a fourth COVID wave is avoided. For some, the risks remain too high for comfort, and this ought to be taken into account when organising a phased return to the workplace.
So, don’t be dismissive. Speak to individuals who are reluctant to find out the reason behind it; it could come from a fear of exposing an elderly parent or some other vulnerable person in their household.
Much has been made of the positive impact of working from home, with higher productivity and engagement generally recorded. But not everyone has been so happy working from the kitchen or living room table; indeed, GenZ employees have indicated a preference for the workplace culture.
So, it would be useful to identify those who would prefer to return to the office, and provided their return can be safe, they could be allowed back. This should help balance the need for on-site staff numbers.
Even when the time does come to return fully to the workplace, employees may still be reluctant to do so. Statistics suggest many do enjoy the remote working model, or would prefer a hybrid version, but when an employee really is required back in the office, an unreasonable refusal to return to the office can be registered as an unauthorised absence.
Of course, it’s important to discuss this matter with staff, along with the threat of disciplinary action, before deciding to do so. And it would be best if this was the last resort.
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