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How is the world returning to the office?

15 Jun 2021 By Jeremy Hazlehurst

Huge swathes of the globe have been back in their place of work for months. The CIPD’s Work. magazine looks at what we can learn from their experiences

Boris Johnson spoke for glad-handing extroverts everywhere when he complained in March that it was high time workers returned to their workplaces: “People have had quite a few days off, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing for people to see their way round to making a passing stab at getting back into the office.” The UK prime minister was not thanked for his words, either by those office workers who believed they had been putting in a more than admirable shift from home, or by those who do not see a return to ‘normal’ as a noble pursuit. He did, however, reflect a fresh reality for office-bound employees across much of western Europe: having the conversation about when, how and if the return to work takes place is increasingly non-negotiable.

The big challenge for leaders is what happens next. While amateur workplace psychologists have more than had their say on why the daily commute is a thing of the past, they have conveniently ignored a large and compelling body of evidence: the many parts of the world where the past 18 months’ pattern of lockdowns and shuttered workplaces has been radically different or significantly truncated. So what can we expect: a return to ‘normal’ or a big reset? Are some cultures and societies better able to manage the change than others? And what lessons can leaders learn from those countries where employees have already started to trickle back to their cubicles, deskfarms and skyscrapers? 

The evidence from Wuhan, the Chinese city where the pandemic began, is that psychology plays a major role – preparation and reassurance may be the keys to encouraging people back to the workplace. In the weeks after workers returned to their offices in April 2020, researchers asked them how they felt about going back. The results, published in a paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology, showed that workers performed best when they were mentally prepared: “Employees are encouraged to set aside some time to mentally reflect on their work tasks, review their past progress and the disruptions that occurred during the lockdown, get organised by creating a to-do list for work tasks, and set priorities for their upcoming work goals.” Second, they responded best when their managers ‘walked the talk’ on safety measures. This was, said the researchers, “a sobering reminder for organisations that, regardless of their stated health and safety goals, what truly matters is perceived leader safety commitment in day-to-day managerial practices”. 

The lockdown in Wuhan lasted only a few weeks, however. Elsewhere, many of us have been at home for far longer, and had more time to get used to the ‘new normal’. How have these nations reacted? 

Israel is perhaps the only country in the world that has vaccinated its population more quickly than the UK and US – it was the first large nation to administer both doses of vaccine to more than 50 per cent of the population. Workers in Israel began to return to their offices in April but, even in a nation renowned for self-reliance and a go-ahead business culture, caution has been the watchword. The gradual return was governed by the official ‘purple badge’ scheme, a self-regulated system that required businesses to adhere to a relatively comprehensive set of standards aimed at both assurance and reassurance. These included appointing someone to be responsible for coronavirus awareness, adhering to hygiene rules, banning gatherings in coffee areas and kitchens, maintaining a two-metre distance, checking body temperature on entry, and arranging shared transportation for all employees on the same shift, if possible. In May, the government announced that its vaccination programme had been successful at controlling Covid, and that it was dropping previous restrictions on gatherings, including the rule that no more than 30 per cent of a workforce could be in a workplace at the same time, and that meetings were capped at eight people. The rule that people could only enter public places if vaccinated was also removed. 

Jodi Yanovich, VP of HR at 60-strong Tel Aviv-based tech firm GeoEdge, says that in her industry many people were happy to work from home, such as developers and coders, but that customer-facing teams tend to prefer to be in the office and enjoy being around people. It has been very important to “be sensitive to people’s needs” and understand that coming back is “a process”, she says. She advises eager leaders not to apply too much pressure on nervous individuals who may be reluctant to come back to the office, because after a few weeks when they see things are returning to normal their feelings are likely to change. “I know some companies really want to get back to the office – they want the culture back. I understand that, but we waited a year, so we could take a breath and wait for those people who were a little more uncomfortable, give them an extra week or two to come round. I found that it happened more quickly than we expected,” she says.

GeoEdge prides itself on having what it calls a “very strong family atmosphere” and it was challenging to keep this going over the past year. The firm was keen to get staff back into the office, while also recognising that people enjoyed the flexibility of home working. “But even those who were reluctant to come back, once they got into it, they kind of remembered what it’s like,” says Yanovich. “They very quickly get back into the rhythm of being in the office and remember that it’s nice – you can have lunch and coffee together, and people can communicate. It seems daunting after a year, but it’s good once you’re into it, especially with the reassurance that everyone in the office has been vaccinated. The challenge was balancing this to get ‘the best of both worlds’, especially because we have a strong job market here at the moment.” She adds that “clear communication” has been key. “Throughout this last year, everything’s been just so up in the air, and everyone’s been so out of their comfort zone. We’ve had to make decisions, even if they’re tough decisions, and use very clear written communication, even at the risk of overcommunicating our plans.”

In Singapore, the return to offices was slowly gathering pace until in mid-May the city-state reacted to a small surge in Covid cases by increasing restrictions, including banning indoor dining, closing gyms and telling all workers to work from home if possible.

Aileen Tan is chief HR officer at telecoms company Singtel, which has 30,000 employees. “We split our office-based workforce into two groups, A and B, in August 2020. When the government announced that up to 50 per cent of employees would be allowed onsite at any one time, we were ready,” she says. When the government upped the number who could attend offices from 50 to 75 per cent, Singtel split the As and Bs into A1, A2, B1 and B2. “That way, if they decide it was a bad idea and to go back [to 50 per cent], we can adjust easily,” Tan adds. Working from home was still permitted for those who could and preferred to do so, and office goers were spread around various locations in the city rather than being required to be in the same office building. 

Returning to the office was about more than organising shifts, though. “People think you can just come back to the office after a long time, but you need to give yourself two weeks to prepare,” says Tan. “After being empty for so long the office smelled, the leather chairs had started to go mouldy; you need to clean the office and change the air filters and water coolers. The facilities people have to get to work.” Screens have to be put up and sanitising stations installed. “Now everyone has their own little fish tank,” Tan jokes. Toilets are the highest-risk areas for transmission, so a regime of extra regular cleaning was implemented, and workers are encouraged to clean up scrupulously after use. 

Singapore had by May vaccinated 15 per cent of its 5.7 million population, but it is possible to access accelerated vaccination for high-risk workers – Singtel has employees who go into hospitals and immigrant workers’ dormitories. The company also decided that some work, such as teaching, mentoring and onboarding, has to be done face to face, so managers involved in those activities had come back to the office full time. The government asked employers to stagger start times to reduce crowding on public transport, so teams had to navigate coming in between 7.30am and 10am. “There is a strong partnership between the government and corporations on this,” says Tan. A very clear system for testing and managing any Covid infections also has to be in place, including contact tracing, how to communicate and who to communicate with. She adds that HR has to stand firm with anyone trying to bend the rules. “There are rules around eating. You can only have eight in a group, and everyone has to wear a mask when they are not eating, but you have people ask: ‘What if we have two tables of six, and we promise not to mingle? I have to say: ‘No!’” In general, though, buy-in from the population – no strangers to a strong official line on, for example, ‘antisocial’ behaviour such as public drinking – has been high.

Australia and New Zealand may be more easy going, at least by reputation, but they have also coped relatively well with Covid. New Zealand had just 26 deaths from the disease, and Australia 910 up to June 2021. They have also formed a ‘travel bubble’ to allow journeys between the two nations, so to some extent their fates are intertwined. In Australia, there was a short lockdown for part of Sydney over Christmas, and the state of Victoria re-entered lockdown in late May, following a surge in Covid cases. People are no longer even required to wear a mask on public transport. For now, though, New Zealand is the furthest along the road to normality, with the government having moved the country from Level Two to Level One in its alert system. At Level Two there were rules around how many people could be present in an office at one time, but now there are no government-mandated restrictions on numbers. That doesn’t mean everything is completely back to normal, though. The region has been slow to vaccinate, and there is significant hesitancy, perhaps because of the greater focus on individual freedoms and because the impact of the disease has not been as severe as it has in other countries. 

“There is a real mix of approaches here,” says Neil McKissack, CEO of professional body The Human Resources Institute of New Zealand. “Some employers have moved quickly to get employees back into their offices; others have decided to continue with remote working options on a flexible basis. There are definitely categories of employees who are anxious about returning to the workplace, using public transport etc, and these have been the more challenging situations for employers.” Government departments have been under pressure to return “because of the impact on the hospitality and retail sectors of having low foot traffic in the central business districts”, he adds.

And although it is tempting to think that we are close to a return to ‘normal’ pre-pandemic working, McKissack counsels caution – Covid is not just going to disappear and employers need to be ready for further spikes and local outbreaks that may occur. “There has been a tendency to think the things we are putting in place are short-term measures, as this will soon ‘be over’,” he says. “We know now we have to think about the implications of Covid being with us for some time yet. For example, we have to consider how we deal with the loss of access to migrant workers in our agricultural sector. Our borders are likely to be closed to some countries well into 2022. We’ll need to do some innovative things to compensate for these sorts of labour shortages. The learning is that we are having to make enduring changes to the way we work. In this regard, vaccination isn’t a magic bullet either. Covid isn’t going away anytime soon.”    

This article was first published in the Summer 2021 issue of Work, the magazine for CIPD Fellows

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