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Returning to the workplace: Why listening to employees is key

Rick Kershaw, Chief People Officer - Peakon

The return to the workplace – and what this should entail – is generating heated debate as the UK moves to the next phase of lockdown. 

 A large portion of employees seem desperate to return to their place of work. Research conducted by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) shows more than a third of UK workers feel isolated working from home. Meanwhile, nearly half are putting in longer and more irregular hours, as they struggle to juggle work with childcare commitments and other demands.

Meanwhile, another cohort appears  to have really embraced home working. Further research reports improvements in productivity and mental health among UK employees over recent weeks – attributing this to the rise in remote working.

While these contradictory findings could be considered confusing, for me, they highlight the variety within the UK workforce. What works for one will not necessarily work for another. Organisations must collaborate with their people to identify the best way forward, both for them, and the wider organisation.

As a Chief People Officer, I believe there are three, core rules that all HR leaders and their teams should be considering at this time, more than ever 

Listen to your people

Right now, it’s essential to establish or maintain a continuous dialogue with your employees, so you really understand how they are feeling about working from home,  and returning to the workplace Employees may feel differently from one week to the next as varying factors will influence their sentiment. Parents, for example, may find remote working difficult while they have children at home, but when schools reopen, could enjoy it much more.

When you stay on the pulse of your employees’ preferences, you can take actions to meet them and inform ongoing strategy. It may not be possible to please everybody, but HR teams should lay out the options to employees, and be transparent about how these might change as the situation evolves.  Being open and honest will help promote trust within the organisation.  At Peakon, we simply asked our employees how they see the future of work working for them, in order to understand their preferences as we contemplate our future journey. 

 Support those continuing to work remotely

Many organisations will have some portion of their workforce working from home for some time yet. Others will follow Twitter’s lead in making full-time remote working available to all employees. If businesses want to keep these remote employees engaged, HR teams must foster a spirit of trust. Managers should avoid judgment and instead help their teams overcome any barriers to working effectively in the location they choose.

For example, a recent Peakon analysis, comprising the survey responses of over 49,000 UK employees, revealed that understanding around productivity has been one of the biggest concerns for employees during this period. Many believe that their managers do not understand how hard they are working – or feel under pressure to work even harder than usual to prove they’re not ‘slacking off’. This is a big issue that HR teams need to  be aware of and take into account. 

HR also needs to make sure employees are still properly equipped for remote work. By now, most organisations will have ensured employees have the necessary equipment, and technical tools to do their job. However, if employees are going to be working remotely for a prolonged period, another assessment should be made. Ask employees if they have everything they need. It’s likely that during enforced remote working, some will have identified environmental and technical issues that need resolving. Prolonged periods of isolation may also start to have a detrimental effect on their mental health and general wellbeing.  

Make a plan for reopening the workplace 

Employees returning to the working environment will have requirements too. Employers should of course follow government, industry and legal guidance. But HR teams should also make sure employees are comfortable with the proposed measures, and believe them to be sufficient to protect their health and safety. Again, continuous listening is key. Collaborate with your workforce. Ask employees if they want to return, and what would make them feel safe to do so. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this, as individual employees will have unique concerns and needs. 

The coming weeks and months will remain uncertain, with untold challenges for everyone. However, this time should be viewed as an opportunity to lay solid foundations for the future of work.  Employers will need to stay agile, continue to adapt to the situation as it develops, and respond to the individual needs of employees where they can. HR has a crucial role to play as the earpiece of the organisation. It’s only by truly listening to employees that we can start to build a future of work that can really work for everyone.  

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