How HR leaders can navigate the return to the office

HR leaders have a battle on their hands in the coming months to prove that an employee's physical presence in the office is both necessary and safe after over a year of working from home.

How HR leaders can navigate the return to the office

HR leaders have a battle on their hands in the coming months to prove that an employee’s physical presence in the office is both necessary and safe after over a year of working from home. 

Early indications suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns will have a significant impact on the mental health of employees for months or even years to come. 

As early as two weeks into the first lockdown in March 2020, employers were reporting a range of health effects including negative impacts on mental health and wellbeing, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

And, more recently, a study found that nearly a third of home-workers (30%) have experienced loneliness over the course of the past 12-months. 

The return to the office

When people who’ve experienced anxiety, depression or trauma during the coronavirus lockdown finally return to the office, they’ll find that their surroundings are very different to how they were in early 2020. 

Hand sanitiser, floor markings and Perspex screen will be ubiquitous around offices in the UK. And people may have to work alone or in shifts, eat by themselves and avoid group meetings or social interaction with their peers. 

These policies ‘ although required to make an office COVID secure ‘ may impact on the office experience for employees, with activities that encourage cohesiveness, like the tea round, unavailable, and actions that restrict employees, such as one-way floor markings, unfortunately necessary. 

The result of this is more employees feeling isolated despite being in the office, leaving HR professionals with the difficult challenge of adapting their employee engagement strategies to suit the initial return to the office.

Adapting HR policies for each individual 

An important way to achieve this is to tailor your employee engagement policies to suit each individual’s needs. 

It can be easy to think that every employee is itching to return to the office after working from home for so long, but this isn’t always the case. 

In a mid-May survey of GMB union members 80% said they feared a return to work could give their family coronavirus, while 60% expected to be pressured to return to work by their employers. 

Similarly, a different study found that 78% of BAME workers are anxious about returning to work, dropping to 75% among younger employees aged under-25. 

With a return to some semblance of normality in the coming months, these anxieties will re-emerge and it’s essential that business and HR leaders check-in with their employees individually and ensure they feel fully supported. 

The importance of listening to your employees

COVID-19 has changed many of us, but some may not feel comfortable talking about this or any mental health issues caused by the pandemic.

If an employee does choose to share their personal experience and struggles, then HR leaders need to be prepared. Although a HR leader will instinctively want to help their employee, often just listening or showing your team that you are taking their concerns on board during the initial stages of returning to the office can help someone manage better. 

As we all return to normal, HR leaders need to ensure they have regular one-to-one meetings with their teams and encourage their colleagues to talk about any problems they’re having, openly and freely, in confidence. 

Alternatively, if employees feel uncomfortable about opening up to their employers, then business leaders should offer a free Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). 

An EAP will give your employees 24/7 confidential access to help and advice whenever they feel they need it most. 

The value of a reward and recognition programme 

Alongside an EAP, HR leaders should consider a reward and recognition programme to support employee morale and wellbeing as we return to the office. 

Acknowledging employees’ hard work has a positive impact on them. Our latest whitepaper ‘ which surveyed 2,000 employees across the UK ‘ found that 68% of organisations with a reward and recognition programme had strong employee retention. 

With the whole world going through a period of unprecedented disruption, a return to the office may not be as smooth as some employers hope and employees will be looking to their HR teams for help and support. 

A recognition programme ‘ which can involve financial or non-financial rewards ‘ will not only have a significant impact on overall employee mental health and wellbeing but will also create a more harmonious company culture and improve talent retention.

How to reward and incentivise employees 

During the pandemic, employers have sought to engage their teams while they work from home ‘ principally, this has been through virtual events, with employers running a broad range of sessions, from online wine tasting to at-home baking classes. 

However, with lockdown easing, employees will be looking to their employers to create events that make use of the relaxation of restrictions. Yet, this creates a new issue for employers. 

Although the Government has insisted that this will be the last lockdown ‘ if the past 12-months have taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected. 

While we all hope that this lockdown will be the last, employers must protect themselves and create a reward and recognition scheme which is full proof and includes both short- and long-term planning. 

For example, offering a reward that an employee could use flexibly would achieve this – such as a gift card which can be redeemed across a wide timeframe and used on a variety of different purchases.

HR leaders must remember that this ‘new normal’ does not constitute a return to normality pre-pandemic. Some employees will be nervous about returning to the office, while others will be itching to walk through the door. The task for HR leaders in the coming months is striking the right balance between the needs of both parties, and create an office environment and company culture that is supportive, harmonious and COVID-secure. 

Danni Rush
Danni Rush

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