How to manage the transition back into office working

Nic Redfern, Finance Director, KnowyourMoney.co.uk

As we head into the summer months, the UK’s lockdown measures are slowly being relaxed. This in turn is a source of excitement, trepidation or indifference, depending on who you ask.

Indeed, a recent survey of more than 2,000 UK adults commissioned by KnowYourMoney.co.uk revealed that exactly half (50%) were anxious about social distancing measures being curtailed. And in a business context, the evidence certainly suggests that employees are not exactly clamouring for a return to office working.

But a return to the office is – in one form or another – inevitable for most companies. With this transition back into commercial premises comes numerous challenges; in fact, it is likely that some business leaders will find this process more complicated than when they had to move to complete remote working back in March.

So, what are the key questions that must be addressed?

Making the workplace safe

The absolute priority must be ensuring employees’ safety. No business should ask its staff to return to the office until necessary steps have been taken to make the risk of anyone catching or spreading COVID-19 as low as possible.

In many instances, this will require a physical restructuring of the workplace – desks, chairs and storage units might need to be removed, while the layout of the space may also need to be revised. There is pressure on the Government to cut its two-metre social distancing rules in half, until this happens employers must be able to ensure staff are kept more apart than would usually be the case.

Businesses should also consider investing in other equipment to protect employees. For example, they might need to install screens between desks, hand sanitiser pumps and clear demarcation on floors to help people keep their distance from one another.

Cleaning practices will need to be ramped up significantly in many cases. Regular deep cleans will be essential for minimising risk, while staff themselves will also have to follow strict policies around handwashing and what to do if they cough or sneeze. Such protocol will, of course, need to be determined in advance and clearly communicated to all employees before they return to the office.

What practical changes are required will depend entirely on each business’ setup; how big a space they have, what furniture and equipment they require in it, and how many staff will be working in the office at any one time.

Determining ‘on-site’ numbers

It would be ill-advised for businesses to transition from remote to office working in one go. Rather, employees should be invited back in smaller groups, starting with just one or two days a week in the office and gradually building it over time.

How many employees should be in the workplace at a time will, again, depend on the size and layout of the space. But the challenge will be understanding which members of staff to have in at the same time.

Smaller teams within the business – marketing, finance or sales, for example – ought to be kept together to maximise the value of them being back in the office. After all, the return to the office is primarily a way of increasing the ease of collaboration and allowing certain tasks to be completed more effectively than when all employees are working remotely.

As the transition back into the office begins in the weeks and months ahead, businesses must be wary not to rush back to ‘normality’. Doing so will almost certainly compromise the safety of employees – start with smaller, more conservative numbers of people in the office and then slowly increase things from there.

Managing employees’ concerns

Those are some of the main practical and strategic questions to address. One of the most important, though, is how to manage employees’ concerns.

As stated above, KnowYourMoney.co.uk’s research has shown that people are concerned about the easing of lockdown measures. After months of largely avoiding public spaces – and certainly indoor spaces – the return to crowded buses, trains, streets and offices is understandably daunting.

Businesses must recognise and respect these concerns. Remote working, while not without challenges, has been a welcome change for many employees, and the thought of no longer being able to do so could affect their job satisfaction. What’s more, there will inevitably be health anxieties among many people as long as the virus is still at large across the country.

Speaking openly with employees before starting the transition back into the office would be wise. So too would be allowing working from home on an on-going basis, at least for some of the week. Indeed, we are often told that the “new normal” will see remote working become the de facto model for many organisations – the key will be to find the right balance between when a team member can work from home and when they are needed in the office.

Changing office hours is another worthwhile consideration; shifting the working day forward or backwards by an hour or two will better enable staff to avoid rush hour, which could put their mind more at ease, particularly if they are using public transport for their commute.

Ultimately, just as the onset of the lockdown in March did, the decision to move back into bricks and mortar premises will present numerous challenges. Businesses must be mindful of these challenges and address them diligently.

People’s safety is the paramount concern. Thereafter come questions around ensuring productivity is optimised and employees’ mental wellbeing is protected. Importantly, all of these issues feed into each other – businesses that can best manage safety, productive and staff concerns will be best placed to smoothly transition into the new normal.

Nic Redfern is Financial Director for Know Your Money.