Half of employees reluctant to return to work despite firms spending millions on preparation, poll reveals

Majority of workers still lack confidence in safety measures as UK businesses pay out £674m a month on PPE and changing office layouts  

More than half of workers are still reluctant to return to the office over fears they might contract coronavirus, despite employers spending hundreds of millions of pounds per month in an attempt to make workplaces ‘Covid secure’, a study has found.

A poll of 5,000 UK workers and 2,000 employers conducted by Huma found more than half (54 per cent) of workers were still reluctant to return to work because of concerns they could catch the virus.

This was in spite of employers collectively spending £674m a month on preparations to return their staff to the workplace, according to the research, including new hygiene protocols, purchasing PPE and changing office layouts to aid social distancing – equating to an average of £58.55 per month per employee.

Of the employees who have returned to the workplace, the study found more than half (57 per cent) were not confident about the safety measures put in place, and almost a third of those who have not returned (29 per cent) also lacked confidence in their employer’s ability to keep them safe during the pandemic.

The study suggested that low confidence levels could be caused by poor communication. Of the employees polled, only a quarter (24 per cent) felt fully informed of the new safety protocols in their workplace, and the same proportion of businesses said they were prioritising communicating these changes to their employees.

Only one in five (20 per cent) employers felt suitably informed themselves about what policies and procedures they needed to implement to make their workplaces Covid secure.

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Gary Cookson, director of Epic HR, said that the lack of confidence among workers suggested the problem lay more with organisational culture than with specific health and safety arrangements: “The low percentage of employees feeling informed matches entirely the low percentage of employers that have prioritised informing employees,” he said. “That smacks of rushing things and forgetting the important things like doing what you can to keep your people safe from harm. There’s little excuse for that.”

HR consultant Gemma Bullivant said the return to the workplace was creating “one of the most complex [health and safety] challenges” ever faced, and this was placing additional pressure on the HR profession: “HR is suddenly expected to be the expert in H&S – risk assessments, establishing guidelines, working with facilities teams and, perhaps most challenging of all, dealing with the huge range of personal circumstances, fears and concerns each employee may be experiencing,” she said.

“Communication is absolutely critical, and the companies that are managing this well have prioritised and invested in employee comms to build and drive engagement and trust.”

The Huma survey found that commuting was one of the biggest concerns employees held about returning to the workplace (29 per cent), followed by the risk of infection from colleagues (24 per cent) and from attending meetings (23 per cent). The risks that the workplace itself posed was the lowest concern, cited by just 19 per cent of respondents.

When it came to making staff feel safer, the majority of businesses (70 per cent) were willing to pay for a Covid-19 test should an employee request one, and two-thirds (67 per cent) of employees would be willing to do a daily symptom check-in with their employer. 

Nine in 10 (88 per cent) companies were comfortable with monitoring and tracking staff symptoms, and the majority of employees (71 per cent) would be comfortable with employers doing so.

Cookson said HR had an opportunity to “come into its own” by helping organisations deal with the influx of challenges: “Organisations are changing and people are reacting in typical ways. HR professionals can help organisations plan this out, involve people from the outset, support their emotional needs and help to reward and embed new behaviours that lead to increased safety in the workplace.” 

In the survey more than two in five businesses (45 per cent) said they would be ready to welcome staff back to the office before the end of August, while a fifth (19 per cent) will not be ready until the first half of 2021.

This was largely in line with the findings of a recent People Management survey, which found that many employers were planning to send back staff to the office from the beginning of September (21 per cent) or in the autumn (21 per cent). In the poll of 463 readers one in 10 (10 per cent) said they had planned to have staff back at the beginning of August.