The first vaccinations might be rolling out, but employers are not out of the woods yet. Even with a mass immunisation programme, in the most recent iteration of the government’s Winter Plan, prime minister Boris Johnson alluded to the idea that businesses could have to wait until Easter before they start to see real change. As if to reinforce the point, the nationwide lockdown in England ended with a stricter version of the tiered system of local restrictions, while last week Wales – which seemingly only just ended its ‘firebreak lockdown’ – introduced a new curfew on pubs, restaurants and bars.
In practice, the advice to work from home where possible could be in place as late as April, although Sarah Dowzell, COO and co-founder of Natural HR, predicts restrictions of some form could be in place throughout next year. “I think it will take most of 2021 for the majority of the population to be vaccinated, so I can’t foresee businesses returning to the workplace before April – if at all in 2021,” she says. This means there is a realistic possibility that a large proportion of workers will have been out of the office – either working from home, furloughed, on reduced hours or some combination of the three – for more than a year.
This could cause huge challenges down the line. Many could struggle with getting back into the mindset of a daily commute and going to a physical place of work, says Dowzell. Like many businesses, hers has put measures in place to try and increase collaboration and maintain social bonds while out of the office, including video calls, virtual quizzes and frequent catch-ups – “We call them our virtual ‘tea at three’,” she says – but she is aware this isn’t the same as face-to-face interactions between the team.
Employers can expect a mix of responses when the time comes to start the return to the office. Many employees will want to stick to a hybrid model, reducing commuting time and cost by working from home most of the week, with occasional visits to the office. A recent poll of 2,000 UK workers by Theta Global Advisors found 57 per cent do not want to go back to a normal way of working in an office environment. More than two-thirds (65 per cent) still don’t feel comfortable on public transport, while half (52 per cent) say they enjoy a better work-life balance after working from home for so many months. “Employees have clearly got used to a different and more flexible way of working, offering more work-life balance and, in some cases, they’re better off financially,” says HR consultant Kate Marchant. “However, many workers have spoken of missing the office environment and all that goes with it.”
The prolonged stint of remote working has also had an effect on many people’s mental health, particularly those who live alone. But, warns Gary Cookson, director of Epic HR, a return to the workplace after so long could have its own impact. “Businesses need to carefully plan a phased return to avoid overloading people mentally, emotionally and maybe even physically,” he says, stressing that some simply won’t feel comfortable around groups of people after more than a year of socially distancing.
The duration of the pandemic also means there are now many work relationships that have only ever existed virtually, and employers need to manage how these people start meeting in person for the first time. “This is a good opportunity to reset working relationships and group dynamics, so HR should be integral to that,” says Cookson.
From a pragmatic point of view, induction programmes, health and safety briefings and the availability of mental health support are all essential, says Marchant: “Many employees will have been affected by Covid either directly or indirectly so an opportunity to share experiences with colleagues may be something to encourage.” Employers should also remind their staff of any EAP provisions in place, she says.
But before any of this happens, businesses and employees alike still need to get through the dreary months of January and February – a time of year that, even in normal circumstances, is notoriously bad for mental health. “The start of any new year can be tough. It’s cold, dark and pretty bleak,” says Dowzell. “But as we look ahead to early 2021, I think it will be particularly so.” During this time, keeping staff connected to each other and making time to socialise – like they would in a physical office environment – will be key. “Something as simple as giving your employees a bit of free time during the working day to have a conversation that isn’t work-related can be a huge mood booster during these difficult months,” she says.
“Keep talking to them,” echoes Cookson, who suggests employers encourage conversations about the future. “Ask employees to contribute to the future design of the organisation and workplace. Encourage them to continue to build social relationships with their colleagues, and keep talking to them about their wellbeing,” he says.