How to reopen your office – from those who already have

24 Sep 2020 By Eleanor Whitehouse

Despite the government's U-turn on home working, many employers are keeping workplaces open for those that need them. People Management asks HR professionals how they’ve approached successfully returning staff to their desks – with or without the red carpet

Although the government has reversed its previous call for office-based staff to begin returning to their desks and again called for those who can work from home to do so amid a second rise in cases of Covid-19, many organisations are taking the time to consider the guidance second time around. For many employees with housing arrangements not conducive to productive home working, or the mental health impact of months away from their teams, returning to the office had been a lifeline, and a large number of employers have taken the decision to keep workplaces open for employees who need them.

The decision to reopen and stay open isn't one to be taken lightly, but for those considering allowing workers to venture in, People Management asked a few companies who have successfully done so for their top tips.

Consider the logistics of social distancing and extra cleaning 

We’re constantly reminded to social distance when out and about, but this potentially becomes harder in an office. York-based IT firm PowerON Platforms has put in place a one-way system and blocked off alternate desks to enable its 37 employees to begin returning safely. “We obviously needed to stop cross-contamination as much as possible, so we also banned hot desking,” adds head of HR Anna Edmondson. 

Similarly careful planning around desk logistics has helped food service company Compass Group UK place a heavy emphasis on enhanced cleaning. Group chief people officer Sarah Morris says strongly enforcing the organisation’s clear desk policy has enabled a “dramatic” change in cleaning routines at its office in Chertsey, Surrey. “It feels so tactical, but the small stuff builds trust,” she says. “We can now clean our offices in a way that makes people feel much more secure.”

Plan rota systems carefully

If your offices can’t accommodate everyone who wants to come back at once, you may need to compromise. Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon announced in an email to its global workforce at the start of September that its offices would be reopening on a rota system, and other organisations have also taken this approach. Compass Group, explains Morris, first trialled a ‘week on, week off’ system, which she admits didn’t work: “People were picking the days they wanted to go in, and inevitably you’d go in to find half your team not there. Now it’s line managers’ jobs to decide who’s in when, up to a certain maximum, and it works so much better.” 

Ask employees what they want

Rather than guessing or assuming what will make staff comfortable, find out. Software company ESET UK reopened its office in Bournemouth after a survey of its 60 employees indicated a third would be happy to return. “If the rules aren’t in line with their own situations, it’s much harder to persuade them,” says Heather Catchpole, head of HR. “As with any change, make it work for them, rather than just the firm.” 

Similarly, after pulse surveys of its 8,000 home-working staff revealed many missed collaborating, Leeds City Council plans to redesign some of its office spaces to include more breakout areas and fewer desks. “That’s a big shift from where we were,” says HR service manager Emma Browes. “But now we’ve got evidence for decisions like that going forward.”

Tell staff about the changes

Post lockdown, offices look and feel significantly different, so it’s vital employees are aware of new procedures before they arrive. Leeds City Council’s comms team created videos that covered everything from taking the train to arriving at desks, explains Browes: “They really made a difference – we were keen to make sure people knew it wasn’t just a normal return, but equally didn’t want to alarm people.” 

Just as important, says Edmondson, is regularly reminding staff of the new rules. “Once people are back in, it doesn’t take long for them to forget it’s not normal,” she says. “We’re having to do a lot of ‘please remember to sanitise your hands’ etc. It’s basic stuff, but important to keep front of mind.”  

Think about the commute

Employees’ safety while travelling – particularly on public transport – is a key concern. Although comprehensive safety measures for trains and buses are in place, some organisations have gone to great lengths to mitigate the risks. Bloomberg, for example, is offering its global workforce $75 (£55) per day to cover “out-of-pocket transportation costs”, and private equity firm Carlyle Group told its staff they should not use public transport to travel to its London office, and to self-isolate for 14 days if they used it at weekends. But Morris favours a softer approach: “I understand why people feel nervous,” she says. “But it’s important we don’t undermine the message that public transport is a low, well-managed risk if you follow the protocols.”

Don’t force it

It’s important returning to work isn’t made obligatory for now. Even the government has struggled to get its own workforce back in: Downing Street was forced to reverse a call for civil servants to go back to their desks in mid-July, with the majority now expected to work from home until the end of the year. “The idea that you explicitly [mandate a return] implies you’re not listening to the concerns about why people don’t want to come back,” says Morris. 

“We want to make sure everybody feels safe,” agrees Catchpole. “People have appreciated the office being open, but haven’t felt any pressure to go back in.”

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