Kathryn Barnes: Returning to work on good terms

Many employees are living through profound and possibly permanent changes in workplace culture, processes and conditions. The situation for traditional office-based work remains difficult to predict. While the office culture many of us know is not disappearing entirely, neither is it likely to return in full to pre-pandemic levels.

Employers and employees once implacably opposed to the concept of remote and home working have replaced that viewpoint with first-hand experience. Homeworking converts are easy to find, especially among those who favour the idea as part of a hybrid future where home and office-based time is more evenly mixed than before. Given this shift is likely to continue to at least some level of long-term home working, what do employers need to do to balance the business priorities with the rights and wellbeing of their employees?

Collaboration and communication

Any changes in employment practices or terms should be established in the context of effective communication with employees and, ideally, in a collaborative environment which maintains trust. Employers should be cautious about imposing any changes to rules that may damage relationships or be seen as using the pandemic as a pretext for unpopular change.

Despite the difficulties of running a business whose circumstances might be developing from one month to the next, changes should be agreed with employees in advance. Organisations that do not have an effective and ongoing dialogue with their employees are at much greater risk of breaching employment rights, opening themselves up to claims.

Clear communication could come in the form of a work-from-home policy or even having a full team meeting each month confirming the intention from a business point of view. This way, all employees are given the same message and expectations are set.

Employee fear

There is a very real possibility that employers which make substantial changes to terms or standard working practices will create fear and apprehension among their workforces. Covid-19 (Coronavirus) is already having a very significant impact on the mental health of millions of people in the UK.

Employers that need to implement a return -to-work plan should update terms, processes or policies, be attuned to the impact of further change and ensure they work to minimise the prospect of adding further stress to a situation that is already proving challenging for many.

Ensuring safety

As they bring people back into shared environments, employers have a duty of care to ensure the safety of their employees. They should create a safe working environment before asking people to return and make sure they are comfortable with the idea. Staggered working hours and mixing remote and office-based days to control the number of people gathering in the workplace at any one time are important considerations for businesses.

What constitutes normality remains difficult to define as it is different depending on the type of organisation and industry. Based on government guidelines, there is a great deal of variation in how workplaces are being organised. Mistakes will be made and employers must take time to implement decisions about returning to work with great care.

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Many employers have done an outstanding job of adapting to unprecedented circumstances quickly with the wellbeing of their employees at the forefront of their planning. In contrast, others have been criticised for appearing to put profit before protection. As lockdown rules develop and fluctuate, what happens next and the decisions business leaders take, however, is vital to not just millions of employees, but also to the long-term prosperity and reputation of businesses across the economy.

Kathryn Barnes is a European counsel member at Globalization Partners.