Where to begin with the returning workforce?

It’s more than likely that we are all considering what our new working normal will look like post-pandemic. There are many factors that have to be considered such as the impact of lockdown on our business, financial situation, government policy, local medical advice, employment registration, or the industry we operate in. Human resources departments across the country have been tasked with the responsibility of keeping their employees safe in these unprecedented times and operating complex contingency and risk management plans.
At some point soon, if not already, many of these HR departments will be turning their thoughts to their ‘return to work policy’. What might this mean? And what might this look like?
Whenever this may be, we know that when we eventually return to our workspaces, we won’t be working as we did before COVID-19 and there will likely be a phased approach. However, not all changes will be negative, some will be perceived as positive given we have learned new ways of remote and digital working.
With such a task, it is important to have a well-thought-out strategy and the supporting technology that allows HR teams to effectively segment the workforce, identifying who should return to the workplace and by when.
Step 1. Essential workers & specialists
One of the first considerations when developing an HR plan on ‘returning to the new working normal’ is how and who is going to return to work first. With changing government and health policy that now varies across the country, it’s essential that businesses have access to accurate workforce data which will prove key to the scenario and contingency planning.
HR workforce management leads will be working with operations to understand who, in addition to critical workers already at work, should be in the first phase of returners. This will more than likely mean those employees that cannot work remotely due to access to equipment or their work is at a specific site such as construction. In addition, it could also be those that need an increased secure environment for compliance or health and safely (i.e. Security, Defence, Research, etc).
Step 2. Workplace optimization & culture
Depending on government policy and the ability for working space to accommodate larger groups of employees, the second segment of returners could include those that are less productive working remotely, those whose working environments don’t support home working (e.g. background noise or limited physical space), those whose performance is better optimized working in a team (e.g. IT scrum teams – where collective creative design is sometimes better face to face). Some are predicting that this phase could also include those with immunity to COVID-19, as and when accurate testing becomes widespread in alignment with government advice.
In addition to government policy,  it’s also important not to underestimate the influence of company purpose and culture and how this may shape and re-define these timescales based on employees' willingness to return to the office culture.
Step 3. Workplace productivity & attitudes towards remote working
The third segment of the workforce may or may not return based on organizational and employee preference. It has already been reported that Twitter has offered their employees the option to remain remote even after the crisis. This alongside PWCs COVID-19 CFO Pulse Survey which found that 68% of CFOs believe that the crisis-driven transition to remote working will make their company better in the long run, means that we are likely to see a shift in perception of the role of the office. Many CHRO’s are already working with their Facilities Management teams to change hot desking/office areas to team break-out space, envisaging that a great number of the workforce will remain working from home post-crisis.
For many, these choices will depend on employee personal circumstances, productivity, and team collaboration experience. Personnel Today found in a recent survey of those who were not able to work from home pre-COVID, that 68% felt they were either more productive or equally productive since working from home. This was particularly significant given the unique challenges many workers have had to face, juggling childcare and home-schooling with their regular 9-5 schedule.
Step 4. Availability of a COVID-19 vaccine
A fourth and final segment may exist dependant on the accessibility of a vaccine, and government and health policy: some members of our valued workforce may never return to a shared workspace. For example, those with underlying health conditions that put them at risk or are within the high-risk age demographic may be unwilling or unable to return until either a vaccine or national immunity exists. This phased approach is something all businesses will have to implement but has been particularly challenging for not-for-profit organizations that rely on volunteers. For these groups managing the return to work communications with compassion and humanity is a significant priority and consideration.
The next few months hold a great deal of uncertainty and will be challenging for everyone. As businesses set out to transition their workforce back to the office, it is important that they have a clear strategy and are able to draw on the most up to date workforce data. But more importantly, businesses should ensure that any strategy is placing the health, happiness, and wellbeing of all employees at the forefront and remains a top priority throughout.
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