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We have entered a new phase of the coronavirus pandemic. While it still feels too soon to say we’re emerging from it, some organisations are taking tentative steps in that direction. This is evident in the rising proportion of people gradually returning to their places of work. Last week, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released data indicating that 44% of adults had travelled to work in the past seven days, compared with 41% in the previous week.

This is encouraging, but 46% of the UK workforce is still working from home. While we expect this weighting to shift over the coming weeks, for a long time, employers will be managing a hybrid workforce. Employees will be distributed between their homes and workplaces, with some going back and forth between the two. Every employee will have different needs and expectations. So HR teams will have a crucial role to play in ensuring these needs – plus health and safety measures – are met, and the workforce continues to function as one, cohesive unit.

Creating a safe and enjoyable environment for returners
Throughout the pandemic, the number one priority for employers has been protecting the health, safety and wellbeing of all employees. This duty of care needs to be freshly renewed as employees re-enter the workplace.

HR professionals will play a crucial role in ensuring their organisation remains compliant with the official, local Covid-19 guidance. This will involve keeping a close eye on any changes, as the regulations are constantly evolving and vary from country to country. What’s deemed ‘best practice’ in one market may not be sufficient elsewhere.

Employers will already be considering how to remodel their workspaces. Measures might include spacing out desks to create distance between employees, or retiring areas like communal kitchens or small meeting rooms, where contamination could occur. 

However, creating a truly safe space for employees will entail going above and beyond protocol. Employers should ask their employees what will make them feel comfortable in the workspace, listen to their answers, and take the appropriate actions. This two-way and continuing dialogue, along with added support for managers, will be key to making employees feel valued and cared for. It will also give employers a true understanding of what employees really want.

In addition, HR teams should consider what employees want to return to the office for. After months of remote working, many employees will be eager to experience the workplace atmosphere. The return should therefore be a positive experience that gets employees excited about reconnecting with their colleagues in a physical space. 

Continuing to support those working from home
As some employees return to the workplace, it is imperative that HR leaders continue to support those still working remotely.

It’s easy to see how some people could feel like they are missing out on what’s happening in the workplace. HR professionals need to be sensitive to this and put in measures to ensure employees have an equitable experience – no matter where they are based.

Everyone in your organisation should be made aware of, and guard against, the risk of ‘availability bias’. Employees who are physically present in a meeting room, for example, should not be given more time or greater weight than those joining digitally. Similarly, those in the office should not be favoured for certain tasks or promotion opportunities. There must be a level playing field.

Employees should also be discouraged from having sidebar conversations that those working remotely are not party to. Nine times out of ten, this won’t come from a bad place, but sidebar chats could undermine and exclude those not in the room. Virtual team events should also continue so that all employees have the chance to socialise with team members.

HR professionals should also encourage business leaders to remain compassionate and empathetic to those still working from home. Some employees will still be juggling childcare and family commitments, and others may be struggling with feelings of continued loneliness and isolation. Managers need to stay in regular communication with remote team members to ensure they understand any challenges to their productivity, and help where they can.

The next few months will bring fresh challenges for employers and employees. And the needs of both groups should be considered. Fundamentally, what happens next will lay the foundations for the future. Organisations should seize this opportunity to adapt, and establish ways of working that work for the in-office, remote and hybrid workforce.

Rick Kershaw, Chief People Officer – Peakon

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