How to prepare for a return to the office

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As businesses start to reopen and return to their physical spaces, what does this mean for employees and employers?

What will the new workplace look like and will flexible working continue?

For employers, the return to work will permit them to have more staff back in the workplace, which may be good news for companies that have struggled with remote working.

Employees may be asked to return to the workplace, likely for the first time in months, and this could be a nervous prospect for them. To this end, employers must be willing to listen and respond to any concerns they may have, says Alan Price, CEO at HR software and employment law advice service firm, BrightHR.

“However, they will need to make sure they follow Covid-secure guidelines for as long as they remain in place, including social distancing measures such as spacing out employees and one-way systems,” he says.

How the new workplace will look will, again, depend on the latest rules surrounding social distancing, he says. Currently, it is expected that restrictions will be completely lifted on 21 June in England. However, it remains to be seen if social distancing, such as reducing contact between staff, will need to continue past this date.

Guidance on working from home is not expected to change any time soon, meaning that staff should still work from home when they can.

“As we advance, as guidance changes, it will be down to employers if they will permit flexible working arrangements put in place during the pandemic, such as homeworking, to continue on a long-term basis,” he says.

A hybrid model could be the solution

“I’d anticipate most businesses, where possible, will look to adopt a hybrid model in their workplace,” says says Matt Crook, MD, Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting UK.

While remote working has been a success in many ways, there is an argument that it falls short when it comes to fostering innovation and relationship-building.

“This could be the case especially for those colleagues who might have joined your business in the last year – they might not have met a single colleague in person as yet,” he says. Employees will be looking for a great work/life balance and they will want flexibility to become the new normal.

“If you trust your people, why wouldn’t you give them that?” he says. “We have never operated on the basis of the hours people spend seated at their desks. It is their output, expertise and contribution that matters. If the last year has shown me anything, it is the importance of that trust and having the confidence in the culture of your business and your people. That’s what will see companies through the most testing of times.”

This model of working will certainly continue for progressive companies who value staff culture, happiness and wellbeing.

“We expect to see a shift to a hybrid model, some companies opting for a 50/50 split across office and home, and others exploring 70/30 options,” says Lucy Cohen, co-founder of Mazuma, an online accountancy service for small and micro businesses.

“Flexibility and a work-life balance have become more important over the past 12 months, especially as the lockdowns have proven productivity levels can remain high even when employees work remotely,” she says.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if more companies take this one step further and follow Spain in the adoption of the renowned 4-day week.” 

What should you offer your staff, or if you are a member of staff, what are your rights to continue working flexibly?  

Alan Price says theright to flexible working, including being able to work from home, did exist pre-pandemic, and this has not changed. Employees who have worked for a company for at least 26 weeks can request a change to their working hours. While employers do not have to agree to the change, they need to provide sound business reasons for their refusal.

Lucy Cohen says the first thing to do is assess how well people have worked from home in terms of productivity, cost and effectiveness. Secondly, check-in with staff and gather their opinions on working from home – it is not for everyone.  

“A balanced response would then be to offer a choice; provide an office if people want one but also consider allowing people to work from home if it suits them,” she says. Assess the situation on a case-by-case basis and make your company as flexible as it can be to suit all needs. 

What other issues should you consider?

With flexible working comes new things to consider; are you providing adequate technology and desk set-ups for your at-home staff? Are you getting the most out of your office overheads? Can you monitor staff productivity fairly?

“It’s important to find a way to evaluate performance justly between those at home and those in the office to establish what the best working model is for your business and employees alike,” says Lucy Cohen. Ensure all grounds are covered and your insurance and liabilities are updated dependent on how you move forward with your working model post-pandemic.

“We’ve always offered our people a good level of flexibility and it’s thanks to that (in part) that we have been able to perform so effectively since we started working from home just over a year ago,” says Matt Crook, MD, Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting UK.

“That said, human beings are social animals. We want to meet up, discuss, collaborate and interact with others,” he says. There are some instances where it simply makes more sense for colleagues to be in an in-person setting.

“For me, it’s about getting the balance right, but I can say with confidence that, while our people are really looking forward to getting back together in our office in Kingston, we’ll continue to offer them the flexibility that’s formed the bedrock of our business.”

How will the hybrid model work in terms of mentoring and helping younger staff in their careers?  

“Feedback is invaluable, whether it’s virtual or not,” says Lucy Cohen. Mentoring undoubtedly boosts staff retention and career progression. Research shows that Millennials who plan to stay with an organisation for more than five years are more likely to have a mentor than not. 

“This shouldn’t be affected by a hybrid working model – if consistent and regular communication is there, it can still work,” she says. “It will also teach younger staff how to work in both settings which will be a valuable and necessary skill for the future. Setting accountability and having someone to ask the difficult questions is a huge part of mentoring and this can, and should, be done remotely.”

How do you keep up morale as staff return?

“To increase staff morale, I believe you need to have regular, open and honest career conversations with your employees to understand what skills they’d like to develop and what aspirations you can help them pursue,” says Liz Sebag-Montefiore, Director of 10Eighty and executive coach. 

“An employee who feels they have a voice and that their contribution counts is more likely to go the extra mile; they are also likely to take less time off, thereby increasing productivity and generating greater shareholder value.”

David Gormer, a chartered accountant and founder of Square Mile Accounting, which particularly works with tech and ethos-based SMEs, says physical human connection continues to be sorely missed and nothing in the virtual world can compensate for that. 

“Having some co-working time each week is important.  When staff are working from home, it is harder to understand whether they are procrastinating or struggling with their work,” he says.

“It’s harder to work collaboratively on creative projects where one would brainstorm and map out complex issues. However, not commuting has many benefits including significant cost savings for the team, especially when train or Tube which can amount to £400 per month – which is not an insignificant amount.”

In an office environment, conversations with senior staff would include brainstorming about commercial ideas and direction, leading a shared clarity over the direction of the business, he says.

“Successes were shared and our team would celebrate these with team events and lunches. This has been sorely missed since lockdown.”

High morale depends entirely on the culture of your business, says Matt Crook.

“There are certain values which we, at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting UK, try to embody and we actively encourage our people, through our Culture Ambassadors, to do the same. It’s about trust, having honest conversations, giving data-rich feedback (even when it feels difficult to do so) and accountability.”

Plan for the future new ways of working

Think about the people you are hiring – the future talent of your organisation. Do they have a positive mindset? Are they authentic? Do they demonstrate emotional intelligence? These are skills which will be needed in the new post-Covid-19 working environment.

“As a business leader or owner, you also have an obligation to ensure that your people have access to robust learning and development opportunities,” Matt Crook says. “When these are freely available, your people will feel greater loyalty to the business, be more productive and you will retain top talent for longer.”

Among the initiatives Square Mile Accounting has introduced for employees to help with home working are:

  • Creating a working from home allowance to optimise their professional environment and contribute to upgrading broadband.
  • Ensure that they have the right equipment at home, desk chair, hardware etc
  • Online meet ups and games to maintain cohesion. 
  • Rules of engagement on group chats and platforms, such as the MS Teams and Slack, to ensure people have sufficient thinking and working time and there is a mutual respect for boundaries to prevent too much interruption.

Further reading:

Marianne Curphey is an award-winning financial writer and columnist, and author of the book How Money Works. She worked as City Editor at The Guardian, deputy editor of Guardian online, and has worked for The Times, Telegraph and BBC.

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