How to prepare your team to return to the office

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Is your organisation starting to plan a return to office life? After over a year of remote working for many businesses, it could become a possibility at some point this year. The timeline may be uncertain (COVID case rates and any new variants will see to that), but what is clear is that fewer businesses will go back to full-time on-site work as before. For many employers, a hybrid working model seems to be the way forward - when staff spend part of their week working from home, and the other in the physical workplace.

When the BBC questioned 50 of the UK’s largest employers in May 2021, 43 said they had no plans to bring their workforce back into the office full time - preferring a hybrid mix of remote and on-site working instead.

So, if you’re preparing to welcome back your team (even for just a few days of the week), let’s look at things to do now to get re-entry right later.

1. Find out concerns about a return to the office

If you ask employees what concerns them most about returning to a physical workspace, staying infection-free will probably top most lists. But not all workers will major on health and hygiene. Longer term, people may also be worried about losing the flexibility they’ve grown to enjoy through working from home. They might have questions on how childcare arrangements will work for them now, or not savour the thought of travelling during the rush hour as they did before.

Our advice? Find out what’s on employees’ minds, then use this information to shape the type of back-to-work plans you put in through your company.

2. Don’t assume employees are the same

From an employer point of view, the benefits of having people in the same workspace may be obvious. But remember not all your staff will share your eagerness to return. Events of the last year have changed everyone, and many have been left with a significant mental and emotional toll.

Even star employees who were the most sociable and can-do might now be feeling some dread about return-to-office plans. So, make sure you take each individual on their own merits - and avoid making assumptions about how they the pandemic has left them.

3. Share (or even overshare) on your preparation for a return to the office

It’s crucial to communicate new guidelines and safety protocols well ahead of time so employees know what to expect when they come back to the workplace.

Part of that is sharing your Covid workplace risk assessment, which is an important step in knowing what your organisation needs to do to manage risk and protect staff as they return. Being open about the risk assessment will also help let staff know the ways you’re mitigating those risks.

According to HSE guidance on risk assessments, as an employer you must:

  • Identify what work activity or situations might cause transmission of the virus
  • Think about who could be at risk
  • Decide how likely it is that someone could be exposed
  • Act to remove the activity or situation, or if this isn't possible, control the risk

Employees need to be reassured that you haven’t overlooked any safety steps. So it may be best to go above and beyond what you’d normally do pre-pandemic - oversharing and overcommunicating have never been so important.

4. Prioritise mental health

The effects of the pandemic means that more people than ever are suffering from stress and anxiety. Talking to job candidates at HR GO it’s clear that mental health support and emotional wellbeing for employees will be crucial as they get comfortable with a return to the office environment again.

We know that perks and benefits, like being able to see counsellors or coaches, or accessing online fitness or mindfulness classes, are now high on the employee wishlist. Getting things back to normal - or at least as normal as possible - means taking things slowly and involving employees every step of the way. And with mental health in the spotlight, it’s good to keep talking to staff about how they’re feeling - to help them navigate back-to-the-office as well as into the future.

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