Darren Hockley at DeltaNet International shares his tips on easing employees back into office-based work
As the UK enters the third stage of lockdown easing, many organisations are implementing new safety procedures to welcome staff back into the office. With the difficulties of the pandemic weighing heavy, employees may feel anxious about the return to work – especially after working in the safety of their own homes.
According to research by Randstad, 72% of respondents revealed they will not feel safe in the workplace until others around them are vaccinated, and 56% of respondents now enjoy a hybrid working environment where they can choose where to work.
As part of workplace health and safety programmes, business leaders need to support the physical and mental wellbeing of their employees. Considering the Health and Safety at Work Act (1964), every organisation in the UK has a duty of care to their employees, both in the office and when working from home.
Here are five tips to supporting employees transition back into the workplace safely.
1 – Understand HSE guidelines
Organisations must make sense of and follow the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidelines on COVID-19. Business leaders ought to carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment to understand exactly how to protect their employees from Coronavirus. Risk assessments are a valuable tool for realising what hazards and risks may be present in the workplace and what precautions can prevent harm.
Not only is this a requirement, but the HSE is carrying out inspections on all types of organisations across the UK to ensure they are compliant with COVID-19 health and safety regulations. The inspectors are speaking with employers to ensure the workplace is COVID-secure for employees, customers and any other visitors.
If the HSE believes an organisation is not managing the risk of COVID spreading appropriately, then they can support with advice and guidance. They also have the authority to stop certain work practices until they are made safe, issuing enforcement notices, in addition to prosecuting the business if it does not comply.
2 – Build trust and effective communications with staff
Regularly updating staff about the changing government guidelines and how it affects their work is imperative. With many employees working from home, business leaders must keep them in the loop in how they intend to support them back into the workplace in a safe manner. Providing email and policy updates, speaking to them in a team meeting as well as catching up with them individually to discuss any concerns they may have about returning to the workplace. It’s also good to be open to any ideas they may have for making it a safe place to work.
3 – Lead by example with health and safety policies
Be proactive and show employees that you genuinely care about their health and wellbeing. Make the work environment a safe and inviting place to be. Create sanitation stations around the office for staff to easily access hand gel and antibacterial wipes.
With employees working from home for so long, it’s important to make it clear what’s safe and not safe, e.g., sitting socially distanced at desks or putting up clear dividers to reduce the likelihood of a virus being transmitted. Establish regular cleaning practices such as wiping down working spaces after their use, including meeting rooms.
Once employees return to working in the office, it may feel natural to behave as it were pre-pandemic. For example, giving hugs or handshakes to colleagues, doing a tea round for the team, or hosting a meeting with colleagues sitting side by side in the boardroom.
While these activities might seem normal in the workplace, organisations will need to consider the implications of contamination. The government has repeatedly highlighted that many people might carry the virus but present asymptomatic, so it will be up to organisations to instil safe working practices and a health and safety culture.
4 – Support employees with training
Preventing the spread of infection is crucial, so providing training in this area to employees before they return to the workplace is a great way of ensuring they understand new policies and procedures in the ‘new normal’. Ensuring staff understand new working practices, such as social distancing in the workplace, using one-way systems, and always maintaining hand cleanliness and hygiene is paramount.
Training staff on the importance of taking a COVID-19 lateral flow test if they plan to go into the office is another way of reducing the possibility of an infection.
Additionally, being away from the office for quite some time may mean employees will need to refresh their training on standard procedures in the office; these include spotting hazards, fire safety, and using display screen equipment (DSE) safely to prevent health issues.
5 – Manage hybrid work practices
Organisations should recognise that not everyone will jump at the opportunity to return to the office. Some employees may continue to feel anxious about Coronavirus, especially those that are vulnerable and live with vulnerable family members. Some employees may feel happier and safer to continue working from home.
It’s essential to create new policies that will be beneficial for both the organisation and the employees, e.g., suggesting one or two days a week in the office for different departments to allow teams to connect in person (if this is needed). It’s advisable to not enforce full-time working in the office straight away as this may cause anxiety for those struggling to feel safe for themselves or their family.
After more than a year working remotely, many employees will not be physically or mentally ready to work surrounded by their colleagues full-time. The phase-in process here is critical. Supporting employees with training, not just for workplace safety, but also how to deal with mental health and stress will be imperative.
The physical and mental health wellbeing of employees is a priority for organisations. So, putting in place the right procedures and training to help employees feel safe will be vital for businesses taking their next step to getting staff back into the office.
Finally, consider hybrid work practices to allow employees ease back into the office, making them feel safe and comfortable and understanding their needs.
Darren Hockley is the Managing Director of eLearning provider DeltaNet International. The company specialises in the development of engaging compliance, performance and health and safety eLearning courses designed to mitigate risks and improve employee performance.