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As businesses across the UK continue to welcome their employees back to work, many are experiencing confused feelings of positivity and trepidation about their return to the office.

Our research found that while over half (53%) of employees are worried about working in close proximity to their colleagues, 45% said they felt lonely working from home and preferred to be around their co-workers while 30% believed they missed out on opportunities when not in the office.

As businesses attempt to identify their best path forward post-lockdown, many will be assessing key learnings from the last six months. Whether opting for a staggered return to the office or continued flexible working into 2021, communication, flexibility and preparation will be key to successfully navigating the coming months.

So, what are some of the challenges and opportunities that employees anticipate as they prepare for the return to work, and how can employers best support them during this period?

A staggered return
Depending on the size of a business and density of its office space, maintaining home working arrangements across teams on an alternating basis could make it easier to implement safe social distancing in the workplace.

An alternating approach to remote working might also reduce the risk of staff feeling pressured or overwhelmed by an immediate return to the office five days a week. After all, some families might still be juggling childcare arrangements and public transport systems may start to become crowded again, so a transitionary period could help many adjust to post-lockdown office working more comfortably.

Continuing to invest in technology over the longer term will also be important to ensuring that people can continue to work remotely or on-site, either in accordance with their own wishes or as part of your staggered return-to-office plan.

Communicate and listen
Ensuring staff feel reassured that they can safely return to the office will require continuous communication. From changes in physical offices to expectations of how to operate within hybrid teams, any new workplace requirements should be communicated to all staff in a clear and timely manner to avoid uncertainty or undue concern.

Regular email correspondence, updates on the company’s intranet and social media channels, as well as frequent ‘town hall’ meetings (either online or in a smaller setting) should all be considered as elements of an effective communications approach.

Maintaining two-way communications channels with your team will also be essential for keeping up employee morale and ensuring clarity. For example, if some employees aren’t comfortable with coming to the office every day, then they should have plenty of opportunities to voice their concerns and have them dealt with promptly, respectfully and fairly.

You may want to consider a separate feedback channel to allow staff to offer thoughts on their experience of returning to the office and any suggestions on improving the process. Whether on a company-wide basis or a team-by-team approach, schedule regular check-ins to engage with employees’ questions and concerns over the coming weeks and months.

Focus on employee wellbeing
It is important to recognise that your workforce has been working through an intense period of uncertainty and change in recent months, in addition to working for weeks in isolation without the usual physical interactions with team members. This period will have been exceptionally difficult for many and could potentially be detrimental to employee engagement and mental wellbeing.

Having adjusted to keep staff connected with one another from a distance with virtual team building exercises, video calls and daily check-ins, as teams begin working in hybrid models with some in the office and others remote, staff engagement will need to adapt again.

Managing people with greater sensitivity and maintaining positivity throughout will be crucial. To help instil a sense of normality and engagement, encourage maximum collaboration between individuals (in accordance with social distancing rules), and make sure teams feel part of company goals and opportunities through regular meetings and communication irrespective of their location.

Flexibility, preparation and communication
While lockdown may be easing in some areas of the country, the health and safety of employees will continue to be a top priority for businesses for the foreseeable future.

With some employers extending their work from home policies until the end of the year while others encourage staff to return to the office now, it is clear that approaches will vary.

However, irrespective of your strategy for returning to work, one thing is clear – flexibility, preparation and communication will be essential for all firms looking to successfully navigate our ‘new normal’ going forward.

Matt Weston, Managing Director, Robert Half UK

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