How we can return to work after the lockdown
Throughout the pandemic I have been advising clients in a wide range of essential services including retail, logistics, food production, waste management and power distribution. We are now reaching the end of the first phase of containment, but the second phase of adjustment is likely to last far longer, with a mass vaccine unlikely to be available until at least 2021.
The pressing question for HR leaders is how to bring about a return to normal operations. I would group the necessary measures and considerations into four broad categories:
Your staffing needs are likely to have changed over the past three months – for better or worse. The following strategies are simple and inexpensive, and can be quickly implemented.
Businesses should explore extending their core hours of work to allow lower workplace densities. This will allow employees to travel at off-peak times and facilitate social distancing. Dependence on public transport can be reduced by promoting car sharing and cycle schemes. Workplace density can also be managed by the continuation of homeworking where possible.
Assess the layout of your workspace according to the latest government advice, reviewing entrances, exits and stairwells, introducing a ‘one way system’ in busier zones where necessary. Cleaning regimes should be reviewed and enhanced, replacing surface cleaners with disinfectants.
In situations where optimal social distancing measures are not possible, a personal hygiene programme should be established, with designated times for handwashing before and after periods of working closely with others. Hand sanitizers should be provided where there is less access to washing facilities.
2. Mental health
Recent research showed that 80% of Britons feel that working from home during the pandemic has negatively impacted their mental health. Meanwhile, the pandemic’s impact on access to NHS mental health services has been severe, and pre-existing mental health conditions have been worsened by fear and anxiety related to the pandemic.
For employers, it’s critical to reassure your workforce by communicating the strategies your business has undertaken to safeguard their welfare.
Be mindful of the different ways employees may have been affected by the COVID crisis. Many may have been through stress, illness or bereavement related to the pandemic. Managers should be trained to identify increased stress and anxiety among employees, including homeworkers, and should ensure that adequate support and signposting is in place.
It is, of course, vitally important to follow government guidance to identify and protect staff deemed at higher risk of COVID complications because of their age, ethnicity or existing health conditions
3. Physical health
The pandemic has proved to be a ‘perfect storm’ for the physical health of the population, For instance, common conditions like arthritis have been affected by a lack of access to treatment during lockdown, combined with a reduction in physical activity for many homeworkers. Stress and anxiety may lead to an increase in unhealthy coping strategies, such as an increased use of alcohol.
For homeworkers, managers should introduce ways for homeworking employees to integrate healthy habits in to their daily work. Workstation risk assessments should be undertaken, and employee engagement programmes should be introduced to promote wellbeing initiatives.
It is, of course, vitally important to follow government guidance to identify and protect staff deemed at higher risk of COVID complications because of their age, ethnicity or existing health conditions.
Many employers have embraced technology in new ways during the pandemic, for instance an increased use of video calls. This is a positive development which can help to increase homeworkers’ sense of engagement, and allow managers to better gauge homeworkers’ mental health. As these new technologies become embedded in our work habits, it’s critical that your organisation’s technical support is fit for purpose, particularly to support employees who are working from home in the longer term. It’s also important to get the balance right and avoid video call fatigue. After a day of staring at a screen, an end-of-day phone call could prove a welcome alternative.
Looking ahead, offices may have to be re-engineered, using technology to reduce infective risk. Features including thermal infra-red cameras, hands-free lavatories and remote lift-calling may all play a role. Mobile apps and wearable technology will help promote safe distancing, providing alerts and enabling contact-tracing – although employers should consider the implications for privacy and data-protection as these technologies are deployed.