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How to lead an employee-centric return to the workplace

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(Image credit: Shutterstock.com / Pressmaster)

When Covid-19 struck many employees across the UK suddenly found themselves either in very different working conditions on the front lines of a global pandemic, or working from home – perhaps for the first time. Some people have enjoyed remote working more than others, noting benefits such as cost savings and less commuting. While others are increasingly eager to get back to some sort of ‘normality’ – at least for some of the time. 

While opinion may be divided, one thing is certain: As restrictions in the UK start to ease and workplaces start to re-open their doors, some employees will be feeling anxious or uncertain about going back. It’s essential therefore that business leaders listen, understand, and respond to their individual employees’ needs and concerns at this time, especially if they want to successfully transition into the next world of work, and beyond.

Take your time 

Already, some traditionally office-based organizations have announced new ‘remote-first’ policies, allowing employees, where feasible, the opportunity to work from home indefinitely. Meanwhile, others are strongly advocating for hybrid models, or a full return to the physical workspace. But, whichever direction your organization decides to go in, it’s important not to rush or force your employees into doing anything they are not yet ready for. 

Some workers will inevitably feel some anxiety about the coming months, and yet another change to their working lives. For those who started a new role remotely, meeting their teams in person could be a really exciting moment – but it may also be nerve-wracking. For those employees who have worked on the frontlines of the pandemic, anxiety may be linked to increasing numbers of customers returning, or possible changes to the safety measures in place. Alongside this, many people will be worried about the health implications of in-person work – and the public transport they take to get there – especially if they are, or live with, more vulnerable individuals. There’s a catalog of concerns and nuances to be understood and carefully considered.

So business leaders need to ensure there’s a well-organized transition period between where they are now, and the sustainable, long-term model they see themselves operating in the future. A fundamental part of developing a future of work strategy that really works for all employees is first taking the time to consider how to make everyone feel heard, supported, and confident about what’s next.

Listen closely 

The workforce is not a monolith, nor is the remote working experience. According to one survey, more than half (56 percent) of UK employees working from home over the past year have felt an increase in their level of happiness, with a similar proportion (55 percent) using their lunch breaks to focus on their personal lives.

For others, however, this period has blurred the boundaries between work and home life and made it more difficult to switch off. Reports have found that some employees working from home are spending longer at their desks than before the pandemic and are facing bigger workloads. They have also been found to take shorter lunch breaks and work through sickness. While it’s important to note that remote working during a global pandemic is not the same as remote working during more ‘normal’ times, this experience will have inevitably shaped employees’ perceptions of the model.

The broad variety of experiences remind us that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution here. So instead of guessing, or making assumptions about what people want next, business leaders need to listen to and collaborate with their people to identify the best way forward for each individual and the wider organization. It’s essential to establish and maintain a continuous dialogue with employees to truly understand how they’re feeling and the varying factors that influence their sentiment. Are they worried about starting up the commute again? Or are they really struggling with the monotony of home-working life?

Implement the right tech 

Technology is instrumental in helping us get the answers to these questions. By regularly surveying employees and paying attention to their responses, businesses can start to truly understand their concerns and make moves to address them. The ‘regularly’ point is key here. Many businesses still undertake an annual engagement survey. But when the landscape is changing so rapidly, this cadence will not get you the real-time information you need. Instead, employers need to use the technology available to them to get a view of engagement that’s always up-to-date and connected across the entire organization.

They also need to use technology to listen intelligently to what their employees are saying. This means adopting software that will help them ask the right questions, to the right people, at the right time – and that will adapt based on previous answers, feedback, or events. Creating highly targeted surveys in this way helps to ensure that employees engage with them, and employers receive the relevant information they need to make rapid and well-informed decisions.  

What’s more, with confidential and automated surveys, employees can feel confident about giving honest feedback.This is the key to building an open dialogue with employees, and helping to promote trust and long-term engagement.

The pandemic has changed the way we work forever. Uncertainty will remain a constant over the coming months as organizations and their people continue to find their footing. While taking the next step may feel daunting for business leaders, it could be an opportunity to engage and even recalibrate their relationship with employees. Technology is offering them a real window into the wants and needs of their people. It’s now up to them to use what they learn to lay a solid foundation for the future of work.

Top tips for planning an office reopening: 

  • Follow government, industry and legal advice to keep everyone safe and secure. 
  • Open-up dialogue, asking what employees need to feel confident and safe for any re-integration. 
  • Really listen with empathy to workers and demonstrate that their concerns are valid and are being addressed where appropriate. This will instill confidence as they return.
  • Be adaptable to change. Employees have unique concerns and needs which are subject to change on a weekly, or even daily, basis.

Rick Kershaw, Senior HR Director, Peakon, a Workday company

Senior HR Director at Peakon, a Workday company.