Author: Jamie Mackenzie, Director of Marketing Sodexo Engage
After months of working from home, Boris Johnson has given businesses the green light to get their employees back into the workplace. But as employers consider re-opening their doors, it’s likely that offices will look quite different to before.
Pre-pandemic, the daily ritual of commuting into the city and working from an office was just part and parcel of working life. However, with employees now used to working from home and well-versed in Zoom meetings and virtual catch-ups, getting back into the old swing of things is likely to be a challenge.
For many of us, the office was a place to come together, brainstorm and share ideas – a buzzy environment with chatter over desks, break out areas and regular tea runs. In fact, open plan offices have soared in popularity in recent years as employers increasingly recognise the benefits of a more flexible, collaborative working environment.
But as we start to navigate this new world, businesses will need to understand that the purpose of the office may change. Rather than a hub of social interaction, employees might view it as a quiet place to concentrate, a change of scenery from home offices or simply a place to attend essential meetings.
First and foremost, the safety of employees needs to be top priority for businesses. Everyone will need to up their basic hygiene practices, including regular handwashing and hand sanitiser on tap. Enhanced cleaning and regular disinfecting, especially on high-touch points, will become the new norm.
With social distancing still in force, employers will also need to think about ways to keep co-workers apart. There’s no golden one-size-fits-all solution but it’s likely businesses will have to temporarily wave goodbye to shared workspaces and hot desking and replace them with one-way systems and a possible return to old-style work cubicles or pop-up partitions between desks.
Employers should also limit the number of people in the office, with staggered start and finish times and a flexible working rota with different teams working alternate days. Not only will that stop the office from becoming overcrowded, but it will ensure public transport isn’t jam-packed at rush hour.
Returning to the office after a long stretch of working from home is likely to be a shock to the system. While some employees might be itching to get back, for others the change will be overwhelming, with two thirds of people surveyed by BUPA admitting to feeling anxious about returning to work.
The past few months have seen normal life turned upside down, but it’s reminded us what’s important and that’s people.
The mental health of employees is just as vital to a business as a new product or customer service and now more than ever, employers need to step up and build a mentally aware workplace. We have all felt and will probably continue to feel the psychological and social effects for some time to come and employers have a moral duty to provide their staff with greater support, flexibility and above all – care.
Staff should have access to information on how to identify triggers for themselves, a clear call to action and steps to follow if they need support from managers. Managers should have an open-door policy, even if it’s virtually, enabling employees to have more casual conversations about things that worry them without fear of judgement.
Ask employees how they’ve found working from home and how they’re feeling about returning to the office. If some team members are too frightened to travel on public transport or worried about the health of people they live with, they shouldn’t be forced to travel into the office if they can continue working from home.
On the other side of the coin, there will also be people for whom lockdown was a positive experience – a chance to self-reflect and work out what matters to them. This might mean a better work-life balance or the chance to pursue different interests. The typical 9-5 isn’t for everyone and employers should use this as an opportunity to create a working culture that puts employee-wellbeing and needs at the core.
In a nutshell, whether a business brings all, some or just a few of its staff back to the physical workspace, snapping back to the way life was before the pandemic won’t be an option. Leaders will need to think of new, engaging and socially-distanced ways to bring everyone together, feel safe and make them feel connected – and accept that the role of the office in a post-Covid world may have changed for good.