As you focus on creating back to work plans to smoothly transition employees back to the office, you also have to prepare for those who don’t want to come back.

Do we want to go back to the way things were?

As you focus on creating back to work plans to smoothly transition employees back to the office, you also have to prepare for those who don’t want to come back.

In a YouGov pol last month, it showed only 9% of Britons want life to return back to normal post the lockdown.  With the government announcing the plan to lift the UK out of lockdown, more and more companies are working on their plan to bring their people back to the office.

The gradual return to work will put pressure on both employees and employers for different reasons. 

For employers, you will think about how you can best protect the physical and psychological health and safety of your employees, how you can satisfy the requirements of your employers liability insurance, how they can make sure you stay on the right side of government guidelines and health and safety protocols, plus show you are a company of good moral standing who is taking the right steps to do right by your teams and customers.

The pressure is huge.

There are plenty of stories in the media, of companies such as Twitter, Google and Facebook who are extending the option for their employees to work remotely until the end of the year or in some cases indefinitely.  Yet not every business is sold on this. Yet.

I’ve given presentations, commented in HR publications, written articles on the practical consideration’s leaders should consider things that businesses should consider.

Yet the psychological impact is a subject which deserves a spotlight on its own.

Because for some of your employees, they may not be ready to come back. And above a JFDI mandate, you need a considered approach to how you manage this.

Things have changed

Once the initial shock of the pandemic arriving and the swiftness in which many employees were told to decant from the office and make home their new working abode, life changed rapidly. 

The routines we all took for granted came to a halt.

We became immersed in the world of video conferencing, even more WhatsApp messages, Slack channels, emails, more virtual collaboration tools they we ever thought existed and we are juggling home life, family responsibilities, all at the same time in the same space.

Yes, there are practical fears about catching the virus.  I’m blasé about most things, but even I have been cautious during the lockdown of not flouting government guidelines.  For selfish reasons, after having cancer a few years ago, my immune system is not as robust as it should be so the thought of getting on a packed commuter train into central London brings me out in a cold sweat.

But aside from that, things have changed for me during the lockdown, like they will have changed for you and your employees.

I needed a break from the old routine

I’ve created a new routine. That didn’t involve the commute into work. That didn’t involve trekking into London, three times a week. Cramming in back to back meetings to make me feel like it was the only way to justify in mind that I had had a few productive days and the commute, paying the childminder, the train fare and parking fees was worthwhile.

I’ve had to overcome, and sometimes it’s still a work in progress, how to instil boundaries between my work and my home life.  I work so much more now, a lot of self-generated work to be fair, but it’s work all the same and because I’m home, and have a dedicated office and a mobile phone, it’s easy to work around the clock.

Taking regular breaks, making sure I have time to exercise, to do my daily bike rides with my 12-year-old daughter and having the time, without feeling guilty, to slouch in front of the TV and binge watch Gangs of London and Money Heist has been work in progress.  I’m better, but I’m still not there yet.  But the point is, I’ve had time to structure my day in way which works best for me.  And I’m not so sure I want to give that up.

If I’m feeling the same, and maybe you are too, then it’s not a bit leap to assume many of your employees will feel the same way too.

Like I have, they’ve had time to reflect.  Reflect about their lives, their priorities, what matters, and the jobs they do, how they do it and who they do it for. 

Maybe the lockdown has eased the pressure and relieved them of expectations to pretend everything is okay when it’s not.  Therefore coming back to work means a return to the same grind, the same unhappiness which they temporarily escaped during the lockdown.

If your people weren’t happy, engaged or inspired before the lockdown, be under no illusions – those feelings won’t have just slipped away.

Culture is more than perks

The pandemic has also exposed weaknesses in the culture of those businesses that have been able to give lavish benefits and perks to their employee’s free food, subsidised travel, on-site childcare, gym facilities, yoga at lunchtime, meditation in the evening. You name it, they had it.

When you strip back the perks, often used as a prop for culture even though we know that culture is about behaviour.  But when you strip all of that back, you are left with a true understanding of what your culture is.  And for some, this has left them feeling exposed.

They’ve changed

Recognise your employees have changed.

For some it has changed their priorities.  What they value in life.  What they care about, the impact they want to make.

For other’s it’s made the question the sacrifices they’ve made for their jobs, their companies and wondering if it’s worth it.  When something like Covid-19 can appear and change our ways of living and interacting with one another.

Whilst we may all have fresh fears, new anxieties, we also have new hopes, dreams, aspirations and ambitions.  Positive energy which can, if channelled in the right way, support rebuilding a new culture, rather than trying to preserve the old.

Commit to the new, don’t cling to the old

So, with all of your back to work planning and thinking about not only how you protect the physical health and mental well-being of your employees. Also realise and acknowledge that things have changed for them too.

Allow for that.

Make time to explore and understand and encourage your leadership and management teams to get to know your employees once again, understand what they lockdown experience has been like for them, what they’ve found a challenge, what new reflections they’ve had and think about how you can harness these learnings for the benefit of your company.

But to show that you’ve listened and that you care.

The office life will change for the better. Businesses will focus more on culture once they’ve elevated out of the survival mindset therefore now you want to be thinking about how you:

  • Be deliberate and intentional about the new culture you want to create.
  • Build a new 21st century leadership capability which emphasises emotional and cultural intelligence, empathy, inclusion and adaptability.
  • Free people from doing low-level repetitive tasks and instead adopt a flexible approach to retraining and redeploying people to different roles in unfamiliar parts of the business.
  • See the potential of your teams as much more than their job title or where they sit in the hierarchy of your organisation.
  • Listen to the ideas within your teams. Remove the barriers to crowd-sourcing ideas to improve your processes, service your customers better or experiment with new ideas and innovate your products or services.
  • Use technology with the right human-centred infrastructure to help you not only find better ways to serve your customers, but also to engage your employees and support them in navigating what continues to be an ever-changing world.

Just like with mental health, supporting how people feel is more difficult.

It takes more skill, more patience and more time.

And these are the considerations often left out in strategic planning conversations, in business continuity documents or in crisis management policies.

How are you helping your employees to cope with the transition back to the workplace, acknowledging all of their different and individual experiences?

If you’re still in planning mode, check out my article Easing employees back to work once the lockdown is over: What every business leader ought to be thinking about.


‘The HR Conversationalist’

About the author

A friend of mine jokingly referred to me as the HR Conversationalist and I liked it so much I kept it!

As Managing Director of HR rewired, I help businesses achieve more with fewer resources. By understanding the untapped potential within your team, and using behavioural data to align the right talent in the right roles at the right time, this can make a transformational difference in your ability to compete and service your customers and clients well.

Very passionate about social mobility, technology and employability in young people, I am a Trustee for a group of selective and non-selective schools and after dipping my toe in politics in 2019 (I completed the MP Leadership Programme with the House of Commons and Operation Black Vote), I’m now a board member on the Kent & Medway Economic Partnership Board and a community member for the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Artificial Intelligence.


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