What can HR learn from Europe’s staggered return to work?

Experts highlight that mental health, wellbeing and support for managers are all key to preparing for lockdown’s eventual lifting

As new Covid-19 cases on mainland Europe begin to ebb and EU countries take their first tentative steps back into the world of work, the rest of the globe watches with baited breath. Italy – one of the worse-hit nations – has begun slowly to allow non-essential shops to open, while Germany – which has had a much lower death rate than its neighbors – is now allowing schools to reopen to some students. China is also coming out of lockdown in its own way, with many employers imposing stringent rules on returning workers.

For the UK, there is no sign of lockdown lifting soon. Foreign secretary Dominic Raab – in his capacity deputising for the prime minister while he recovers from the virus – recently announced a three-week extension to the current lockdown measures, and the government’s job retention scheme has been extended to the end of June. But experts believe this is the perfect time for HR to learn valuable lessons from the EU’s return and should keep employees primed for an inevitable reinstatement to work.

Gary Cookson, director at Epic HR, said the UK can learn a lot from Italy, Spain and Austria, which are now slowly allowing their workforces to return. “We are weeks behind them and can learn from what goes well and not so well, while preparing our own plans. Staggering the return seems the most sensible option based on what we know right now,” said Cookson. 

Italy is trialling the reopening of bookshops, stationers, children’s clothes shops and launderettes in some regions, while forestry workers and IT manufacturers are also back at work.

Factory and construction workers in Spain have returned to work, but most are still advised to work from home where possible. Police are handing out masks and sanitiser gel to those commuting on public transport.

Similarly, Austria has begun to loosen its lockdown restrictions by allowing small shops and DIY and garden supply stores to reopen. Customers must wear PPE such as masks and adhere to social distancing rules of one person for every 20 square metres. And Germany has begun to reopen small retail spaces, but the public are urged to wear masks when outside their own homes.

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China too has been easing its restrictions, with many employers taking heavy precautions. The Financial Times reported that those returning to work are being subjected to regular temperature checks, compulsory mask wearing in offices and in some cases are being told not to use public transport to commute to the workplace. Office spaces have also been rearranged to help with social distancing.

However, Dr Will Ponsonby, president of Society of Occupational Medicine, warned against taking inspiration from China’s methods. “I think we need to be cautious about what lessons we take from China as we are not aware of all the facts. There are, however, models to emulate, such as that of South Korea, which based its control programme around testing and tracing of potential cases,” he said.

Once testing for coronavirus becomes more readily available, Ponsonby suggested occupational health (OH) departments should be able to facilitate a staggered return to work by allowing those who have had the virus and developed some immunity to leave lockdown first. Work is being done to prove that those who have had the virus develop immunity, and to establish how long this immunity lasts after an infection. “This will help OH decide who can return to work and when,” he said.

“There will still be a group of vulnerable people who will need to remain at home isolating until we can protect them with a reliable vaccine, but OH can identify who they are.” 

Cookson said preparations for lifting lockdown restrictions should centre around employee feedback and opinions. Involving employees in conversations about the return to work was crucial in making the process viable and long lasting, he said, adding: “We may need to be prepared to vary people’s working patterns, perhaps permanently, to enable them to maintain a work-life balance they have got used to while being locked down and working from home. And not before time either.”

Despite the continued uncertainty around when lockdown may end in the UK, Rob Cross, founder of Muru Leadership, said now was a “perfect opportunity” to plan. “Even though there are still quite a few unknowns that influence your plans, you can get your team to focus on defining the scenarios for what the future might hold and then create plans for how to proactively respond,” he said.

This was echoed by Neil Morrison, HR director at Severn Trent, who said it was critical for organisations to plan for various scenarios – including managing a phased return, managing a partially remote workforce, and various health, safety and wellbeing concerns – to ensure the right one can be rolled out as quickly as possible.

He added that “small factors” should be considered, including how people are allowed to take annual leave, hygiene standards in buildings, protocols for internal and external meetings and the impact of ongoing social distancing on things like training, assessment centres and internal events.

And Rachel Suff, senior employee relations adviser at the CIPD, added that employers will need to be compassionate and develop a strong framework to support employees’ mental health, which is “almost certain” to have worsened. “[Employers] should ensure managers are well supported and able to have sensitive conversations with staff about their return to work, including how they feel in terms of their mental wellbeing,” said Suff.

“Employers need to be prepared to make changes for people to support their health where needed, whether temporary or permanent. They should be as flexible as possible to ensure that employees can make an effective return to the workplace where people have been working from home."

Ngozi Weller, director at Aurora Wellness, said HR and managers should approach the situation as they would for employees returning from maternity or extended sick leave. “You can't go from zero to 60, and there should be a staggered re-entry into the workplace,” she said. “Communication on a potential return date should start as soon as possible to give employees time to mentally adjust and start planning.

“There also needs to be recognition that employees' working patterns will have changed, and a transition period should be allowed. That could be a split between days in the office and at home, with days in the office gradually increasing on a weekly basis.”