Covid-19 sent the majority of workers home, requiring many employers and employees alike to evolve and adapt to remote working. While the shift to remote working was, for many, an abrupt shock compared to the daily norm of commutes, an office environment, coffee machine catch-ups and face to face meetings it has brought into question whether the traditional office working model is still the most productive or even necessary.
Many across the world have discovered before unknown benefits to adopting a work from home or even hybrid part office/part home working culture without compromising their productivity. Whilst a majority will agree that FaceTime, Zoom and Microsoft Teams can never quite replicate the real thing, people still find themselves in a quandary.
Do we work from home and utilize the added benefits of time saved and often fewer distractions (if you have right the set-up at home) to be as, if not, more productive than in the office, whilst finding that spare time to take care of life, to see the doctor, clean, cook, study, exercise and spend time with family? Do we chalk it up to the Covid-19 world as a one-off, returning to the familiar and reliable norm that has stabilized businesses for generations? Or do we find a middle ground, a hybrid, a means to evolve and adapt the business and staff protocol to achieve the best of both worlds?
As the world slowly attempts to bring back a sense of normality and many return to the workplace either full time or on hybrid terms employers and employees face several challenges moving forward. It is therefore critical that employers put in place comprehensive and practical plans to ensure that the return goes as smoothly as possible for all parties concerned, with minimal impact on productivity whilst even enabling growth and adaption to produce a better working model than before.
Challenges & Solutions
Managing the return to the workplace either full time or on hybrid terms has become a new challenge for employers and employees. Mismanagement can have a direct impact on the employee’s motivation, commitment and collectively, their experience. In turn, it will have an impact on the organization – good or bad, depending on what steps are incorporated.
One of the key takeaways from the remote working period has been the added benefit of flexibility over the traditional office model. Many have found the time they lost in suiting up, commuting and being out of the house the entire day has been utilized well whether it be for something as simple as a quick clean of the kitchen, a workout, spending some added time with their spouse or children to studying and medical appointments. As we return to the office either full time or in a hybrid fashion many will feel that loss of time.
In either case, employers need to be aware of the feelings of their employees in this sense and keep in mind that a polar adjustment back to a rigid workplace schedule may be questioned by many employees.
The challenge is offering employees some flexibility for their essential human needs (i.e. doctors appointments, family and even exercise) while trusting the commitment of employees to their work, without taking advantage. Similarly, employees must accept that beyond working from home full time there are limits to how flexible a workplace schedule can be and should adjust their expectations as to what they can achieve with any added flexibility that may be offered.
Contracts of Employment
Given how abruptly people were required to become remote workers, employment contracts for most employees have not been updated to take into consideration any necessary adjustments brought about by working from home, whether permanently or not.
Where employees are due to return consideration needs to be taken as to whether contractual amendments will be required to govern this transition. Employers must revisit employment contracts to address any changes such as remote working, performance goals, hours and any other requirements deemed necessary to govern a remote working relationship.
For those returning to the office full time, employers must consider whether contract amendments are required to allow for increased flexibility, sickness due to Covid-19 or quarantine and isolation as necessary.
Employees should ensure they are familiar with their existing contract. If any changes are taking place at the office level or they are transitioning to a remote working or hybrid style they should consider the terms of any new or updated employment contract to ensure it comprehensively governs the relationship with the employer and all parties are clear on their duties and responsibilities.
On returning to the workplace, in addition to considering employment contracts, existing office policies will need to be considered and revised to account for Covid-19 requirements. In addition to this, where an office has adopted a hybrid approach, policies ensuring equality and fairness amongst staff who are required or choose to work from the office vs those who work remotely will be essential.
Questions must be asked by employers on how to address office protocol in terms of sanitation, social distancing, meetings, handshakes and common areas to name a few. Specifically, new policies may be necessary, such as when or if an employee can choose remote work i.e. could it be limited to a number of days a week or month, who should it be communicated to, what login or check-in procedures will be necessary to ensure employees are working remotely and not taking advantage?
Finally, equality regarding opportunities amongst staff may fall into question if those who prefer to work from the office and thus present more ‘face-time’ appear to be favoured over those who work remotely. Protocols and policies ensuring equal consideration and opportunity amongst all staff must be considered to continue attracting high calibre employees looking to progress even though adopting a remote working approach.
It will be crucial to not only ensure these policies are reasonable, practical and enforceable but that the same has been clearly communicated to all staff to ensure they not only understand but are comfortable with any changes. Uncomfortable and unhappy employees won’t last and in the long run will not serve the needs of the business.
With social distancing being the driving force behind our ability to interact socially and personally, how can a workplace come together and how can team building take place in such an environment whether we are in the office full time or part-time.
As we spend a significant majority of our time in a workplace or liaising with colleagues, an important element to a workforce is the social and team dynamic.
Considering Covid, irrespective of a full return to the office or hybrid style, employers must be mindful of the potential collapse of the teamwork dynamic. Where once teams would gather around a table to discuss all from the latest project to their weekend plans, Covid-19 has, for the most part, shattered this team building activity.
As a return to the workplace does not appear to offer this positive feature of being physically present in a workplace how can employers tackle this challenge.
With the focus of most team interactions being by way of video call it should be encouraged, if not mandatory, for teams to conduct bi-weekly or monthly meetings with zero agenda beyond setting aside a window to simply chat and connect as a team. A focused endeavour for teams to get together, in socially safe outside activities, would also be received well.
On the side of the employee, adapting to the video call world will be essential in making an effort to be present, available and contributory to such team-building efforts even more so. Failure to make a conscious effort to connect with your colleagues in the era of social distancing will ultimately only result in a disconnect from your colleagues, seniors, and role altogether.
Covid-19 placed a whole new emphasis on sanitation.
For many, returning to the office provoked feelings of fear, worry and anxiety following months of being told to keep a safe distance from fellow humans and effectively avoid breathing the same air. To bring employees back to the office employers must take careful steps to prepare their employees for the return to ensure any fears and worries are allayed.
There can be no doubt that this particular element shall be one of the larger challenges an employer will face. Should they physically re-design work environments with social distancing in mind, how will meeting spaces and communal areas be utilized and monitored? Can employees come and go through front doors safely, travel down corridors or use the bathroom without contravening social distancing requirements?
Most importantly with all of the above taken into account how can employees be made to feel safe in a shared environment when the world is telling you to keep your distance from one another?
Employers should spend time not only considering the available physical space and use of the same to ensure safe distances are offered but they must also ensure safety guidelines, protocols and briefings are offered to all staff to demonstrate prioritizing their well being and safety.
Notwithstanding every effort that can be made, employers will have no choice but to accept that for some it will not be enough. Risk factors such as underlying health conditions, age or close family contacts with similar risk factors will be unavoidable and for those employees, a return to the office may offer more risk than they can or are willing to accept.
Employers will need to be mindful that one-size will not fit all in this respect and do what they can to tailor their approach to ensure risks of discrimination against staff for health-related reasons is avoided. It will be of utmost importance to offer a personal touch to the more vulnerable employees, creating a safe work environment.
Employees, in a word, must be reasonable. Such drastic changes have been brought about at an unprecedented rate and demand, and for many businesses, it will be a trial and error work in progress. Efforts should be made to have an open relationship with your team leaders, HR and managing staff to be able to communicate your concerns, thoughts and ideas to assist in creating a new and safe workplace in the Covid-19 era.
Whether it be that employees were required to work from home during the course of the pandemic and they are now returning either full time or on a hybrid basis, the question of data protection and exposure will require addressing.
Many who have worked from home are unlikely to have secure systems in place to the same level of a workplace, raising the risk of data theft, loss or exposure.
Data Protection policies and protocols will need to adapt, where they have not done so already, to ensure employees practice good data protection procedures while working from home to reduce the risk of exposure, loss and theft of a business or, more importantly, client data.
Employees must take this on board when considering the remote working angle, do they have a safe workspace where they can ensure any sensitive data is protected from loss, damage or even third-party eyes (friends, deliveries, cleaners etc.). Is their home network safe and secure and will they be using their personal computer and phone or work provided appliances? If their own, are they also suitably secure and protected?
A less likely considered obstacle many will be facing in the return to the office is anxiety.
For many, their time working from home will have desensitized them to the hustle and bustle of a busy commute, a packed train or a busy office. Or it will have shone a light on an issue they didn’t even realise was there prior to Covid-19. To take it one step further some may have experienced Covid-19 on a more personal level, be it contracting it themselves or a family member suffering.
For those the return to the office may be harder than others and employers will need to be mindful of the emotional toll that Covid-19 may have taken on their staff before initiating a full return to the office, as though Covid-19 had not happened.
A distracted and anxious employee will not be a productive, happy or even long-term employee unless appropriate efforts are made by all parties to ensure returning employees are comfortable in their work environment.
Efforts in safety and sanitation, as noted above, will go a long way to offer comfort, however beyond this employers must consider what other mechanisms can be put in place, such as more regular team meetings to discuss and de-stigmatise such issues, team meetings without agenda to encourage a comfortable social dynamic in the office and perhaps strict quiet zones free from ring tones and conversations.
On the part of the employee, in a similar fashion adopting healthy working practices such as a regular break from the desk, stepping outside to find some quiet, keeping your team leader informed and encouraging an open conversation. If needed, perhaps seeking outside support to tackle any anxiety-related difficulties to enable a healthy and comfortable career.
Failure to recognize the extensive impact Covid-19 has had on the mental health of all people, employers and employees alike, will only serve to create further tension and difficulty for all as people return to the workplace. Employees will burn out in their attempt to return to normal while battling any mental health difficulties, businesses will in-turn suffer the drop in productivity and lost staff if a safe and healthy work ethic and environment is not encouraged in the workplace post Covid-19.
The Covid-19 forced absence from the workplace has weakened the connection and familiarity between staff and the workplace itself.
As enforced remote working becomes a thing of the past how do employers and businesses adapt so as to encourage employees to return to the workplace? The long-term policies, protocols and decisions of a business will have an impact on not just whether staff return but whether they stay and if they can attract new staff. Ultimately, if businesses cannot establish a working dynamic the needs and future of the business will suffer.
In recent surveys conducted on LinkedIn, it was revealed that an 80% majority is in favour of adopting a hybrid working model blending working remotely and returning to the office. In keeping with this trend, it has been revealed that many offices are adopting a 50/50 split of remote working and working in the office whilst requiring a minimum number of numbers present per working week and putting place of key performance goals to ensure productivity is not disadvantaged.
On the other hand, many businesses favour the traditional working model citing reasons such as the working atmosphere, focus, team building and sharing of ideas and knowledge as strong reasons to return to the tried and tested model.
As said before, no one size will fit all, and it will be for each individual business to test the waters of their employees to see what camp the majority fall into and whether their business can not only function but possibly thrive using a hybrid or remote working model.
Either way business will go on and people who have had a glimpse of the benefits of remote working will not be willing to sacrifice it all at the drop of a hat. It will be for both employers and employees to establish a new working dynamic that offers safety, support, team building and productivity to ensure that existing and future staff remain with a business and productivity remains high. Without evolution in the wake of Covid-19 businesses stand to suffer if all parties cannot adapt.
Authored by Bradley Moran