How long has it been for you? When did you last sit in a meeting room, in your office, with all the members of your team? Though the coronavirus lockdown has officially been in force since March 23, many businesses had begun the change to remote working in the weeks leading up to it.
Now things are slowly starting to move again. With the cautious easing of lockdown restrictions from June 1, and with reductions in the furlough scheme announced, it’s time for businesses to begin planning for the next stage.
At Pure, we have started to see the market slowly but surely reviving. “The team that’s working is busy so we’re looking at how we can start to bring people back from furlough,” says executive director Lynn Walters. “Doing this right will take careful planning and we’re looking to do it on a gradual basis. We’re looking at our people-engagement, our use of technology and our use of property as they’re all going to be different to how they were before Covid-19.”
Helping furloughed staff back to the workplace starts with understanding the impact furlough has had on them. Some will have loved it, but there will be others who can’t wait for it to end so they can get back to work. “There is always the risk that they have been feeling anxious about being furloughed: why were they chosen? Will they still be capable when they go back? It’s important to do support people as they return,” says Lynn.
To get the best from people coming back from furlough, it is important to consider how to re-engage them and how to reintroduce them to the workflow. They will not only have to get back into the swing of what their roles used to involve but also get up to speed with what’s changed - both with the way the business operates and with the way projects and relationships may have evolved while they were on furlough.
“Communication about what’s changed needs to be broken into chunks and it needs to be interactive. Even if you have a lot of information to pass on, allow time for plenty of Q&As,” says Lynn. “It needs to be done in a sensitive and supportive way. You can’t make assumptions that returning staff will understand all the ways things have changed, but care has to be taken not to alienate them by treating them as though they’re new to the company.
Communication isn’t just top-down. It is also important to consider communications between furloughed and non-furloughed staff. “The people who’ve been working through have been working hard and may be getting tired. The people coming back from furlough should be rested but they won’t be in the loop,” says Lynn. “Those who’ve been on furlough will need to know what’s moved on.
Our solution is to use a buddy system to help get returning staff up to speed. Other institutions are setting up virtual workrooms, where staff are online alongside their colleagues all the time. Both approaches have the same aim, to make it easy for the returning staff to raise minor queries, as naturally as they would when sitting beside a work-mate in the office, to accelerating their reintegration into the business after furlough.
Use of technology
The government guidelines are still that people should be working from home if they can, so in most cases employers should be looking to bring people off furlough to work remotely. The technology allows this, but mastering it and adapting to the new way of working means employers need to have realistic expectations for how long it will take returning staff to get up to 100% output.
“What many businesses have seen is that productivity is up in a lot of areas. But people have to get used to the different patterns of working to reach that level of productivity,” Lynn says.
Those productivity gains are largely a consequence of the flexibility of working from home, allowing people to find patterns of working that suit them – perhaps taking bigger breaks during the day and working later into the evenings, or starting earlier in the morning. Returning staff may take some time to find the pattern that makes them most productive.
“Employers also need to be conscious of the fact that employees may have had a shift in their values as a result of everything that’s happened. They may attach more importance to looking after their families or their health, on agile working and on the flexibility of working from home,” advises Lynn. “Those who’ve been on furlough are more likely to have seen a shift in attitude and values.”
While flexibility is one of the benefits of the new, remote way of working and it may aid returning staff, it’s also worth considering that some organisations are keen to return to set hours to limit work’s ability to encroach into family life: there’s a fine line between working flexibly and just working too much. The Best Employers approach has always been to have a dialogue with staff and that's especially important when supporting furloughed employees trying to find the right balance as they enter the flexible, remote workplace.
Use of property
The timing of when to start the process of returning to the office will vary for every business. Some will be doing it already; some are about to start; others, like Pure, will be waiting another two-to-three months. Our focus at the moment is on developing what I call a blended pattern of working. One that will suit our people, that suit the company and will be sustainable,” says Lynn Walters.
Financial services giant Curtis Banks is one of the businesses moving back towards office work. It employs more than 620 people around the country, with around half in the Ipswich headquarters.
“We’re in a similar position to many businesses that are based around working in offices. We had to migrate to remote working overnight and it’s shown the best side of human nature, as people embraced the solution to keep working,” says CEO Will Self.
“As we’ve gone through lockdown, it seems more people are wanting to return to the office - though not everyone can. Some are in high-risk groups, others can’t get into the office without using public transport,” he adds. “It’s human nature to want company. But we’re at the point now where we can start a return to the office for those who want it.”
The solution has been to divide the workforce into three teams, which will take it in turns to return to the office for a week at a time. This means there should be about 10pc of the staff in at any one time. “We would dearly love to be able to bring more people back but we will have to wait, like everyone else, until the advice is that it’s safe for us to do so,” says Will. “Our return will be driven by government policy and advice.”
Planning around a lower occupancy rate allows space for social distancing, though Curtis Banks also decided to alter the internal layout to ensure those in the office wouldn’t end up sitting close together anyway. “We also had to make some practical changes to some areas such as the kitchens and the post room, and to the way people enter and exit the building,” Will explains. “We’ve used copious amounts of yellow tape to mark out areas and 2m spaces, so people know where they should be standing when using the printers or queuing for the kitchen.”
Even when offices do open, some workers will want – or need – to continue working remotely. For most, it will be a question of finding the balance that works for everyone. Flexible working will no longer mean just the hours that people work but also where they do it. Employers need to appreciate that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution that will work for every employee,” Lynn adds, stressing that it’s only by focusing on the employee that the high levels of productivity can continue.
“As employers we need to ask ourselves what we are measuring with our people. Traditionally it’s often been based on input – clocking in and out of a building – when what actually matters is outputs,” says Will Self. “If we measure outputs now against outputs six months ago, they’re absolutely the same but the inputs look very different. It’s important now to build a two-way relationship with the employees, to respect what they need and how they’ve been able to make this work.”
Planning around a medium-to-long-term mix of office and remote working is going to be essential to make working work for everyone. “For most organisations, it’s highly unlikely that work will go back to how it used to be, even if you look forward 12 months from now,” concludes Lynn. This means the reintroduction of the fuloughed staff and the limited return to central offices does not mark the end of the lockdown, but the start of a whole new pattern of business life.
Re-engage furloughed staff
Principally this is about communication. Talk to people early, listen to their concerns, provide appropriate support – and always be appreciative. Many will have felt that giving up work and losing 20pc of their salary was a sacrifice; for some, it will have been a source of anxiety.
Integrate returning people
Emailing someone a list of tasks and saying “get on with it” is NOT the way to bring people back. Take time to let them understand how relationships with colleagues and clients have changed. Bring them into as many meetings as possible. Consider a buddy system to give close support and assistance.
Have realistic expectations
Getting used to the technology and work processes involved in remote working will take time. Finding the way to manage work around family life (especially with the summer holidays looming for working parents) will take time. Just getting back into the swing of the job may take time. Output from retuning staff will take time to match that of colleagues who didn’t go on furlough.
Plan the return
Consider how many staff it will be safe to allow in the building, to permit proper social distancing. Look at how the internal layout will need to be adapted – especially around communal areas such as toilets, kitchens, printers, post rooms. Work out if a one-way system can be applied to corridors and whether entry and exit can be separated.
Look for a balance
The likelihood is that it may be some time before offices can match previous occupancy rates. Engage with staff to help find a pattern that will allow those who want to be in the office to have more time, while those who prefer working from home to do more remotely.
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Lynn is a founding Director of Pure and leads Pure Executive with over 25 years recruiting for Executive appointments. Lynn supports East of England-based businesses with senior management and Board level recruitment. Lynn leads the Best Employer Eastern Region Initiative and the Women In Leadership Programme both of which are aimed at helping companies and people to develop.