Reflections on: Returning to the workplace following the Covid-19 pandemic

HR Network news

30 Nov 2021

With the government roadmap underway for opening up the economy following the Covid-19 pandemic, organisations are also considering what this means for a return to the workplace.  This session was an opportunity to discuss a Return to the Workplace toolkit developed by IES, highlighting a 6-step plan to help employers, HR, line managers and individuals navigate their way through any workplace decisions safely.

Dr Zofia Bajorek, a Senior Research Fellow in the employer market teams opened the session discussing the differential implications that Covid-19 may have had on individual employees, and this may lead to mixed opinions and justified concerns about returning to the workplace, especially employees with long-term health conditions.  As all organisations have a legal obligation to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of employees at work, it is therefore important to take time for effective planning and consultation, and ensuring that robust risk management processes are in place.

The six-steps in the return to the workplace toolkit are:

Planning: Organisational leaders have an important role in managing and shaping the process, making sure clear decisions are made and that information about re-opening is shared in a credible, honest and timely manner.  HR have a specific responsibility to review current policies and practices in relation to health, safety and wellbeing, returning to work and flexible work practices to ensure they are fit -for-purpose following Covid-19.

Risk Assessments: Undertaking a risk assessment is a way for an organisation to strategically consider what must be done to protect employee from harm.  If there are employees with long-term health conditions in an organisation additional consultation to complete a risk assessment may be required.

Employee Consultation: Employers have a duty or care to consult with their staff about health, safety and wellbeing issues within the workplace.  Staff consultations can help to determine what the desire to return to the workplace is and what issues may need to be addressed before employees return.

Return-to-Workplace Conversations: It is important for organisations to take an individualised approach and consider the physical, emotional and wellbeing implications for individual employees.  Such conversations could raise sensitive issues for some employees, and HR should have training and support in place so line managers can conduct these conversations sympathetically.

Opening Up: When the time comes for employees to return to the workplace, they will need to be assured that all relevant practices and actions have been undertaken to protect both the safety and wellbeing of employees.  All employees should be fully briefed before their first day back and what they should expect.

Review: It is important that once the workplace has been re-opened, policies and practices continue to be reviewed and updated, making sure measures are being safely implemented and working well, and importantly are not discriminatory or stigmatising to any employee groups.

Zofia added a disclaimer to the presentation that this presentation was not about discussing whether workplaces should or should not be opening up to employees, but if they had done, or wished to do so in the future, the toolkit provided practical hints and tips about how to manage the re-opening safely for both organisations and employees, as this could have important implications for employee engagement, trust and organisational outcomes.  Similarly, if employees decide to remain working from home, organisations still have a duty of care over their working conditions and positive management practices for staff working at home should also be considered.