Return-to-work pitfalls | Six HR tips for a successful transition back to the workplace

Six HR tips for a successful transition back to the workplace

By Andy Davies, Senior VP, MHR International

While some employers have embraced remote working, others breathed a sigh of relief when the government’s ‘work from home if you are able’ mandate ended and employees were advised to gradually return to their workplaces. It marked the first definite step towards returning to normal working environments for many.

However the return to work presents challenges for organisations as employees put the last 16 months behind them and become reacquainted with colleagues, systems and workplace routines. Here are six tips on how organisations can ensure a smoother transition for workforces over the next few weeks.

1. Reduce the burden on HR and IT by phasing the return

The government has advised a phased return and organisations would be well-advised to follow the guidance and devise a step-by-step programme to make the return as friction-free as possible for each individual. Apart from anything else, it avoids overwhelming HR and support services such as IT.
In manufacturing, hospitality, retail, transport, and other sectors where firms have furloughed large proportions of their workforces, HR will need to manage redeployments, retraining and in some cases, redundancies. Phasing will reduce the strain on the organisation.

Looking beyond the short-term, organisations should use workforce planning analytics to ensure they have an accurate picture of how resources match requirements. They can see where they need to improve employee performance or where different functions need extra support or new recruits. The ability to build scenarios will also ensure employers are well-prepared for future disruptions.

2. Re-onboarding

Large numbers of employees will have forgotten the routines of work after such a long time away, especially if they have revised roles, are in new teams, have new colleagues or are redeployed to different offices or sites. HR teams should work with managers to re-onboard furloughed employees so they can fit back in quickly, providing a programme of familiarisation with tools, work processes and revised lines of reporting or team targets.

Effective communication across the organisation is essential to re-onboarding. Employees should have access to all relevant information and training materials they need, preferably via an online platform they can access whenever it suits them.

Communication must be two-way so that organisations know as soon as possible about changed employee circumstances affecting the ability to work. Finding out on the day an employee returns could cause significant disruption at a fraught time.

3. Prepare for the effect of redundancies on colleagues

Unfortunately, some companies will have to commence redundancy programmes as furlough winds down. But the psychological legacy of the pandemic could amplify negative effects on the morale of those who are retained. As well as thorough and well-prepared redundancy processes, HR should be open and transparent in communication with the rest of the workforce offering comprehensive explanations and reassurance, where possible. Continuing updates on company performance communicated by managers help reduce rumours and can boost morale.

4. Culture and returning to work flexibility

It is important to actively maintain a positive culture. Communication will be different as leaders try new ways of getting messages to everyone in their team, regardless of location. Building team spirit may require a change of approach if more people than ever work remotely or from home.

For many businesses the wind-down of furlough will present them with their first experience of flexible or remote working at scale. The quicker businesses and their people can adapt their culture to these new circumstances, the brighter future they will both have.

5. Long Covid

Organisations should also prepare for long Covid. New REACT research shows how the very unpredictable symptoms of this condition could continue to affect two million people in the UK.

Active management by HR is required to nurture employees with such a little-understood illness and to optimise their performance. This requires HR or team managers to engage with sufferers regularly and to keep abreast of the latest medical and legal guidance.

HR teams also need to be aware of the potential for friction, with unwitting discrimination a real danger given the disease’s disproportionate effects on some demographics. Employers should show they have taken individual circumstances into account and provided the necessary support.

6. Wellbeing

Employers also need to monitor overall employee wellbeing. The return to work may for example, cause or exacerbate anxiety or stress in some employees which may not be immediately apparent. Encouraging them to disclose problems as soon as possible offers a greater likelihood of effective therapeutic intervention or adjustment of tasks. More broadly, HR should ensure wellbeing is seen as a strategic pillar of greater organisational resilience.

The return to workplaces by millions of employees after the traumatic disruption caused by the pandemic does present significant potential pitfalls for organisations. Yet with thorough preparation, effective collaboration and communication facilitated by their HR technology, they should avoid the worst effects and adapt quickly so they can get on with business as normal.

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