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Government’s reopening offices U-turn: how six HRDs are responding

24 Sep 2020 By Jenny Roper

An abrupt change in approach has led to different employer reactions, with some allowing staff struggling at home to come in, and others closing completely

On Tuesday (22 September) prime minister Boris Johnson announced that all workers in England able to work from home would once again be asked to do so in light of an increased number of coronavirus cases over the last few weeks, bringing Westminster’s approach back in line with that of Scotland and Wales.

The announcement marked an abrupt U-turn from earlier advice urging office workers to return. In July, Johnson said people should “start to go back to work now if [they] can”, and in the last month the government has encouraged workers to return to offices, saying that many workplaces were now “Covid secure”.

As such, many employers had over the last few weeks launched extensive plans to gradually and safely reopen their workplaces, with confusion now created around whether offices should shut again to all workers, or remain open for those particularly struggling to work from home.

The changed guidance prompted reports of many large employers reversing their plans. Barclays was reportedly preparing on Tuesday night to tell around 1,000 workers, including hundreds in the UK, to revert to home working. Staff at JPMorgan and PwC, who had been brought back, will now revert to working from home, it’s been reported. Meanwhile, KPMG said it expected a large number of employees to continue working from home, but would keep its offices open for staff who had “a business-critical or wellbeing need to come in”.

People Management asked six top HR directors how the latest change in advice had affected their back to work strategies. 

“Staff should work from home if they’re able, but offices remain open for those who need them”

“We reopened our offices as soon as we could, once total lockdown ended, as we recognised not everyone was finding it easy to work remotely. In recent weeks we had been gently encouraging more staff to work at least some of the time in the office each month, guided by some very clear principles they themselves helped establish (it’s safe; it’s agreed; it’s a start). That approach was working and numbers in our offices had started to ramp up. We didn’t set any hard and fast rules though, and we told everyone we expected the virus to ebb and flow, and that we would have to adapt our approach accordingly. 

“This second wave of Covid cases has proved this judgement correct. We have looked at the government’s new advice and will once again be following it. Our default position is that our office staff should now work at home again where they can. But our offices will remain open for activities that can’t be done at home, for those who prefer it, and for people who find working from home difficult for personal reasons – unless the government instructs us otherwise as an employer and we go back into a second total lockdown.”

        – Neil Hayward, HR director at HS2

“We’ve closed offices again so there’s no ambiguity”

“We reopened our Bournemouth head office in July, on a voluntary basis with increased safety measures like a ‘week on week off’ rota, a social distancing seating plan and enhanced cleaning regimes. We were feeling positive about being able to further relax some of these measures when the government announced the return to working from home where possible. The leadership team decided the best solution was to close the office again, with exceptions for business-critical activities only. We felt the decision to be fully closed removed any ambiguity for our teams and reassured them their safety is our number one priority.”

        – Heather Catchpole, head of HR at ESET

“We never reopened offices because of commuting concerns”

“The new measures for England announced on 22 September have little impact on current ways of working at Unicef UK. We have not reopened our office since the initial lockdown. Our focus has been on supporting our colleagues to work most effectively from home, which not only takes into account their performance but also their wellbeing. We chose not to allow a return to our office as this would have encouraged a greater use of public transport, which we were not keen to do for reasons of public health. We also recognised that, with social distancing measures in place, the benefits of meeting in person were greatly reduced anyway. Any occasional in-person meetings were already being held at external Covid-secure offices, which is also more cost-effective.”

        – Martyn Dicker, director of people at Unicef UK

“Keeping offices open is vital for some staff’s wellbeing”

“Looking after our people, so that in turn they can continue to look after our customers, remains our top priority. The majority of Aviva colleagues are able to carry on working remotely in line with the latest government advice. For those who are not, we have made it clear to our people that our offices are Covid secure and open for them. And we are mindful that for some of our people, access to a workspace outside their home is vital for their wellbeing, regardless of the type of work they do. We are doing everything we can to support our people and help them navigate the uncertainty of this global crisis.”

        – Danielle Harmer, chief people officer at Aviva

“Many of our staff had continued to work from home anyway”

“Working closely with public health and social care colleagues, I could see over the last few weeks the daily rates of Covid-19 increasing. So it was no big surprise when further restrictions were put in place. While we worked together to make our workspaces Covid secure, many of our staff continued to work from home. So the measures announced this week mean a continuation of what we’ve been doing since March rather than an about turn. When it comes to what this means for our staff, they will continue to be led with  kindness and compassion so they can do what they do best – provide public services to our citizens. Will we ever return to how we worked pre Covid? No. Instead there will be an acceleration of the ideas we had before Covid, having road tested many of them over the last six months. As I look ahead to the next six months, my mind is on adopting what’s good and abandoning what’s not, as I rethink the future of the way we work.” 

        – Sally Hopper, assistant director of human resources at Hertfordshire County Council

“We have reviewed and further tightened the criteria for office access”

"The changes announced yesterday shouldn’t have much impact on Skanska. We reopened our corporate offices on a very restricted basis a few weeks back, primarily for those who were struggling to work from home for either productivity or personal reasons. We have reviewed and further tightened the criteria for office access, but will keep the offices open to those who really need them. While our strategy has been to follow government guidance, we haven’t been actively encouraging office-based staff back in, given the majority are working productively, happily and safely from their homes. Additionally, we are about to launch a new flexible working programme which will be available to all our people, whether they are based on site or in one of our offices. So we see the future very much as one where people will continue to work in the ways we have established during the last six months. If the guidance had changed in terms of the continuation of construction work, which of course can only take place on site, that would be a whole different kettle of fish!”

        – Harvey Francis, chief HR officer and executive vice president at Skanska UK

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