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How to support your employees as they return to the workplace

There’s no doubt most sectors will feel the effects of the pandemic for years to come, and employers will need to make some strategic changes if they’re to adapt and thrive. 

But right now, HR leaders face a more immediate challenge – helping those who’ve been furloughed or working from home to adjust to life back amongst their colleagues. 

Here are our top four recommendations for HR leaders seeking to smooth the return to the workplace and drive the best possible outcomes for their organisation and its staff. 

#1: Focus on their first week back 

Although many employees may have already returned to the office, Government advice to ‘work from home if you can’ didn’t lift until the 17th May, which means a lot of people will only just be restarting their daily commute. And with the furlough scheme potentially in place until September, some organisations will be putting up the ‘Welcome Back!’ banners for months to come. 

The first week back will be a big moment for many employees, so it’s critical you consider the pressures they might be facing. For example, parents and carers might be leaving their children for the first time in a year, and some employees may have anxieties about workplace safety. 

Arrange for their line manager to chat to them informally, perhaps over coffee, to find out what they’ve been struggling with during the pandemic, and let them know the changes your organisation has made. This is also a good chance to identify how they’d like to work in the future – whether they want to be in the office permanently or just a couple of days a week. 

#2: Empower your line managers to support employees

The ongoing return to the workplace isn’t just a challenge for HR – it’s a challenge for line managers too. They need to play a crucial role in helping employees adjust and keeping teams connected across locations.  

As an HR leader, it’s your responsibility to empower line managers with the tools they need to guide their team. This could be as simple as providing topics and questions for those informal, coffee-fuelled chats – as well as for ongoing one-to-ones – or ensuring any new policies are communicated and additional training is made available before their teams return. 

Mental health charity Mind backs up the importance of line managers, with some helpful advice in its 2021 Return to the Workplace report: “It is important to make the return easy and barrier-free; recognising different personality types may need additional support and the role of leaders in setting expectations, providing reassurance, confidence and setting company-wide goals and intentions.” 

#3: Set realistic expectations for board members

Just like the shift to home working at the start of the pandemic, there’s a good chance the transition back to shared workplaces will impact company performance – and you need to set realistic expectations for board members. 

You might see efficiency drop as employees readjust to their old environment, and ease back into the social context of the office, especially if you’ve made new hires during the pandemic that haven’t yet met their colleagues in person. 

PWC’s 2021 Reboot: Getting back to the workplace guide recommends using your company data to model your return-to-workplace plan for specific worksites and roles in your business. It’ll help you make data-driven recommendations to board members on the safety measures your business needs to put in place, and it’ll help you show them the impact of the return to the workplace and set realistic expectations. 

#4: Clear communication will be key to success 

In all the recommendations we’ve made, clear communication between employees, managers, and HR leaders will be critical to success. 

What will really effective communication look like? Clearly defined policies with minimal backtracking, opportunities for employees to raise any concerns, and complete transparency between management and staff on company changes and expectations. 

It’s important to recognise your team might not get everything right first time, but if you make employees part of the process, they’ll be much more invested, and more understanding when you need to revisit and adapt your strategy. 

Need help navigating the impact of COVID-19?

We’ve only touched on a few of the issues HR leaders must navigate when welcoming employees back to the workplace – but we’re on hand to support you through whatever challenges you might face.  

At Jigsaw, we have consultants with decades of HR experience across a diverse range of sectors. Just get in touch to see how we can help.  

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