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It’s time to go back to the office: or is it?

This article was published in People Management

If you’d told most HR professionals last year that they’d pull an extensive remote working strategy out of a hat in a matter of days, with little warning, they’d have shaken their heads in disbelief. Yet when the government sent office workers home at the start of the UK’s coronavirus pandemic in March, they managed just that. But with prime minister Boris Johnson now encouraging Britain to get back to work – announcing a changed approach in England from 1 August, placing the onus on firms to ask staff to return when they the employer deemed it safe to do so – many are finding the return to the office is far more complex than the overnight switch they performed in spring. 

“We’ve found it’s way more complicated to get back to work than it was to move out in the first place,” says Jeff Phipps, managing director for the UK and Ireland at software company ADP.  His firm has nicknamed the return to work plan ‘Project DeLorean’, based on the famous time machine car, because the strategy focuses on how ADP can go ‘back to the future’. A recent survey of staff found more than 70 per cent were happy to continue working from home, but a small number were struggling with their home set-up – for space or mental health reasons. Phipps says it’s a priority to get this group back first. “We’ll open in phases; for example, starting with around 10 per cent capacity in the office. But we have to keep asking ourselves why – what are the criteria that allow us to do this? What’s the business reason we need more people in the office?” 

Other employers are taking much bigger steps to get people back at their desks. PwC announced in July that offices would hopefully operate at at least 50 per cent capacity by the end of September. Kevin Ellis, UK chair and senior partner, said this was because “bringing people together safely is important for teams, good for communities and good for the economy”. The company has introduced a raft of safety measures such as sensors that allocate desks.

But will every workforce share Ellis’s enthusiasm to get back to their daily office routine? A recent survey of workers by the CIPD found that nearly half (45 per cent) are anxious about returning to the workplace, rising to 57 per cent if they have a non-physical health condition and 48 per cent if they have a physical one. Additionally, 12 per cent don’t trust their employer to provide a safe environment when they return to the workplace. 

And many employers share this reluctance. A number of firms – including Twitter and Facebook – have found working from home to be so successful they have indicated it will be a more permanent fixture, announcing ‘work from anywhere’ policies that reach well into 2021 and beyond. Technology company Fujitsu was one such business, announcing a ‘work life shift’ strategy that means 80,000 employees in its Japanese offices can now primarily work remotely. 

In the UK, the approach will be flexible, says UK and northern Europe HR director Jason Fowler. “We’ve seen a lot of value in giving colleagues flexibility. We’ve learnt that we can do more things remotely just as effectively as we could before,” he says. “We’ve broken down those assumptions that people who work from home are not working as hard. We can work in a different way, and perhaps more effectively than if we are spending three hours on a train or going into an office just to deal with emails.” 

Dr Linda Holbeche, co-director of The Holbeche Partnership, thinks we’ve reached a crossroads where we can reappraise how organisations are shaped, the value of certain roles and where they’re best performed. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy. “Those who were successfully doing jobs with flexibility before, with the means to be connected, will carry on doing what they’re doing,” she says. “But there will be multiple variations on a job. And more agile and iterative working from HR’s perspective [will be needed] so they can give people the tools they need to feed back on performance more regularly, and provide the infrastructure for people to work differently.” 

As tasks and communications become more digitised, organisations will build teams around in-demand skills, she adds, potentially creating a workforce with highly skilled contractors at the top, greater recognition of ‘essential’ workers such as cleaners at the lower end, and a ‘squeezed middle’ of managers trying to wrestle remote workforces and keep everyone productive and engaged. 

The opportunity to design the ‘new normal’ is an exciting prospect for many HR professionals, however. Harvey Francis, chief HR officer at construction company Skanska, believes the post-Covid landscape marks one of the most significant changes to the people agenda in generations. “We’re well past thinking about it – we’ve made the decision we’re not going back to the way we were,” he says. The firm will launch a ‘back to better’ strategy in the coming months, introducing full flexible working for all roles, outlining how this will work depending on someone’s job, personal circumstances and working conditions. 

With around 80 per cent of its workforce back on construction sites when they were deemed safe to reopen in May, Francis has been able to apply what they’ve learned from this early experience to Skanska’s office-based workforce. “We had a lot less time to get sites ready and needed to get them secure,” he adds. “It wasn’t just about the areas people work in, but pinch-points like corridors and shared workspaces, one-way systems, lots of signage, how you work out how many people you can have at capacity.” 

Those that have gone back to the office so far have done so through choice, says Francis. His team has built an online ‘re-induction’ so employees can walk through how the office has changed, the new safety protocols – even simple things like how to use the car park. “We felt it was important and will use it for anyone who has been away from the office for some length of time,” he says. “You have to do it before you can come back.” 

A major priority going forward is how to sustain the company culture when offices are being used in a different way. Part of this will be suggesting a minimum frequency for teams coming together to managers. “We want to keep teams intact and ensure the culture we’ve built up over many years can be sustained and passed on to new hires,” says Francis. “It’s really important to keep those relationships going.” 

Skanska’s and others’ experiences show that the return to work is by no means a binary choice, and that claims we’re headed for the ‘death of the office’ are far-fetched. “The bad news is that human connections are really suffering,” says Despina Katsikakis, head of occupier business performance at property consultancy Cushman & Wakefield. “While the work is getting done, interactions are very project-focused. So employees don’t have that sense of connection with colleagues, mentoring is not happening effectively and those serendipitous conversations aren’t happening.” Longer term, we’ll see complex, hybrid models of working spring up, she believes. “We’ll start making choices based on function or where people feel they do their best work. So you might see people go to a hub that’s local to them for a day rather than go into London for an hour’s meeting. 

“The office will be curated to focus on those things that people are missing, to build learning and community, to host events, to leverage space so people can come together and collaborate.”  

Justin Conceicao, principal for strategy at workplace consultancy Unispace, predicts there will be a three-pronged ‘propeller’ approach to how employees work, even once a vaccine becomes available and movement is less restricted. “You’ll have three blades: community (social interaction), problem-solving (knowledge transfer) and innovation (where people come together to share ideas),” he explains. For some industries, the problem-solving blade will be a bigger priority (in knowledge-heavy sectors such as law, for example), while in creative industries it might be innovation. “There will be a higher level of curation and management of space; it will be about getting people together at the right time, ensuring they have everything they need,” he adds. We could even see the emergence of ‘office experience managers’ who ensure these spaces are clean, equipped and booked for the right team when they arrive. 

Crucially, it’s important to recognise how working from home has affected different groups and not build a ‘one size fits all’ strategy for their return. Research by the Office for National Statistics this summer found that higher-paid and more senior employees were (unsurprisingly) more likely to be able to work from home, while Cushman & Wakefield’s research found that younger people were least comfortable. “We thought they’d cope well because they’re digitally savvy,” adds Katsikakis. “But older workers adjusted the easiest and best – the majority had a dedicated workspace at home, and weren’t having to share with flatmates. Younger workers had often built strong social bonds with their colleagues and had more distractions and challenges.”

But in some ways the shift to home working has been positive for inclusion. Those who feel uncomfortable speaking up in a face-to-face meeting find they’re on the same ‘level’ as their extrovert colleagues in a Zoom call, while raising sensitive issues is arguably easier if managers have more empathy about your situation (because they’re experiencing a pandemic too). “How we organise workspace opens up a dialogue and we mustn’t lose sight of what inclusion looks like,” argues Mariann Hardey, associate professor in the department of management and marketing at Durham University Business School. “Lots of office spaces are quite hierarchical, and the CEO’s [private] office reflects their stake in the company and their position. This begins to open up changes.” 

Dominic Grinstead, UK managing director for insurance company MetLife, thinks new hybrid approaches to where we work will be good for managers. “It brings a whole new dimension to the traditional perception of command and control management,” he says. “It will be healthy for managers because their people will have a greater sense of personal responsibility – they will have to go and figure out the answer for themselves.” 

Of course no future planning for a return to work can ignore the prospect of a second spike in coronavirus infections, or the possibility of future local or even national lockdowns. “If there’s a predicted second wave, workspaces could become even more problematic,” says Jo Moseley, associate lawyer at Irwin Mitchell: “It’s not just about the working environment, it’s how employees are getting there, how you deal with those who are shielding and issues around whether parents can return to work as schools are closed.” A decision to reopen but to make physical attendance in the office optional is the “most sensible option for many businesses”, she adds. “Start having a dialogue with staff if you haven’t already – what appetite is there for returning to work? Do this before you reach a decision.” 

One thing is certain: just as they were at the centre of managing the crisis response in the early weeks of the pandemic, HR will be at the forefront of driving how organisations return to the workplace. For Fowler, this is about taking the best elements of how people have worked remotely and combining them with a renewed approach to how teams use the office. “We want to retain what it means to be part of this company, to feel the fabric of the organisation,” he concludes. 

“Being remote all the time is productive, but what about feeling part of something bigger?” Trying to find this balance, while keeping teams safe and engaged, will be top of the HR agenda for many months to come.  

Back to the office FAQs

What if someone doesn’t want to come back?

Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, says there will be many people understandably anxious about returning to a physical workplace: “Any return should be fully discussed and agreed with each individual and their personal circumstances taken into account, including their commute and caring responsibilities, as per the government’s guidance.” 

What if staff won’t social distance?

Given the serious implications for all parties, employers are within their rights to launch disciplinary proceedings for this, says Barry Ross, director at Crossland Employment Solicitors: “It is important to ensure all employees understand that disciplinary sanctions can and will be issued for breach of the rules and that, depending on the severity, it could be considered as seriously as gross misconduct and result in the termination of employment without notice.” 

What about employees holidaying abroad?

Employers should make clear what will happen if staff have to quarantine after their holidays. “[Employees] are not legally entitled to statutory sick pay for self-isolating because of travel, so how you respond to this is down to you,” says Kate Palmer, director of advisory and consultancy at Peninsula. “You could ask staff to work from home during this period of isolation or [oblige them to] take the period as unpaid leave or as part of their annual leave entitlement.” 

What if we have a case or suspected case in the office?

Employers should advise any employee who feels unwell to follow self-isolation guidance, to not come into work and to be tested. If they test negative, they can return. If they test positive, colleagues exposed to the infected employee should be sent home to also self-isolate. Tracey Hudson, HR director at The HR Department, advises employers to use a bubble system, where only set groups of staff are allowed in the office at any one time. This will help businesses implement their own track and trace system and quickly reach out to colleagues potentially exposed.

What are the chances of more local lockdowns?

The reimposition of restrictions in the north west should be a sharp reminder that the UK is still in the midst of a pandemic, says Suff. Businesses should create a contingency plan for a local lockdown, says Paul Kelly, head of employment at Blacks Solicitors, recommending employers assess what worked and what didn’t during the country-wide lockdown.

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