Working our way back to normality

By Steve Guest | 19 May 2021

We’re at a critical turning point in the pandemic. At the time of writing, the third step in the Government’s restriction-easing roadmap was tantalisingly close.

However, despite the progress we’ve made, COVID-19 is still in circulation and there is always the risk that there could be further, significant bumps in the road ahead. The risk of a third wave is real – particularly while the vaccine rollout continues and our understanding of variants and their potential resistance to vaccines is incomplete. In short, there is no room for complacency, and we must remain vigilant. At the same time, now is the critical period where we risk sliding back into old ways of doing things unless we actively take steps to avoid it.

After 14 months, the desire to reopen society, to mix with our family, friends and colleagues is understandable, significant and cannot be underestimated. From a basic wellbeing perspective, we are social animals, so, when it comes to where we work, this issue goes way beyond considerations such as presenteeism, attendance culture and the practical considerations in getting the job done. While we suspect that there will be increasing expectation to return to the office environment in the weeks and months ahead (albeit far more flexibly than pre-pandemic), there will undoubtedly be many employees who will be increasingly keen to do so, too.

Of course, I feel it important to say early on that for many frontline key workers, their experience of working through the pandemic has been very different to those who have had the option of working virtually. Engineers, waste operatives, social workers, environmental health officers and so many others working in frontline services have done an incredible job at keeping the country moving and our most vulnerable protected. We’re all indebted to you.

As those who have been working virtually return to workplaces to some degree, everyone needs to continue to assess and manage the risks of COVID-19. Employers continue to have a legal responsibility to protect workers and others from risk to their health and safety. This means employers need to think about the risks they face and do everything reasonably practicable to minimise them while recognising they cannot completely eliminate the risk of COVID.

However, this isn’t just about meeting legal responsibilities and mitigating risks. This is also about being a good employer, demonstrating with clear action that the welfare of employees is first and foremost in their minds, as well as thinking further ahead.

Last year, KPMG released results of two surveys conducted with global CEOs, both pre-pandemic and during the crisis. One of the findings was a significant shift in their assessment of risks and priorities. Issues such as global financial downturn and climate change featured, but standing out among these risks was talent retention – named the largest threat to their businesses, ahead of environment and supply chain. Some 77% said they would continue to build on their current use of digital collaboration and communication tools, and 73% believed that remote working has widened their available talent pool. The flexibility now afforded by home and remote working to employees the world over means worker expectations have shifted, with people wanting to work for organisations that are offering flexibility and prioritising physical and mental wellbeing.

This topic has been hitting national news headlines in recent weeks, including the group chief executive of HSBC announcing in April that they are reducing office space by 40%, embracing hybrid working and scrapping the executive floor of their Canary Wharf offices in favour of communal spaces. Workspace providers like IWG have seen a massive shift in the market during the pandemic and have said they are focusing their business model on the accelerating demand for hybrid working.

The pandemic has shone a very powerful light on the practices and cultures of employers and, as a recruiter who has continued to work with a range of local authority clients throughout the pandemic, it has become clear to me that this topic is a recruitment and retention issue in its own right.

As an example, I recently worked with North Norfolk DC on a strategic director-level recruitment. I had never visited the council prior to the pandemic and the majority of the recruitment process was conducted virtually, so the first opportunity I and the candidates had to physically visit the civic centre was on the day of the final interviews. In terms of COVID-security, I didn’t know what to expect.

Any concerns I had vanished as soon as I arrived. It became immediately apparent that the council was taking no chances and that the health and wellbeing of all staff, members and visitors was the first priority. What gave me that immediate level of assurance?

First, means of entry and exit to the building were strictly one-way. Reminders around wearing face masks were present and there was a security presence on the door to ensure compliance. As soon as I walked through the door, a hands-free temperature scanner checked my temperature and gave me the all-clear. Next, I was escorted to a recently installed hand-washing station in the lobby. This wasn’t a simple hand-sanitiser dispenser, but a properly installed sink with hot and cold flowing water, hand wash and disposable paper towels.

I was then escorted to reception, where I was signed in and asked to wait in a socially-distanced waiting area, where seats were present, but were all two metres apart. On the floor, select carpet tiles had been lifted and replaced with bespoke ones that reminded visitors to observe the two-metre rule. I didn’t know such things even existed until that day.

The positive and reassuring impression this attention to detail gave me as a visitor was enormous and the impact wasn’t limited only to me. The feedback I have subsequently had from candidates was that this level of focus on staff wellbeing cast the council in a very positive light, giving a very strong impression of the organisation and where its focus was as a potential employer.

Speaking with James Claxton, North Norfolk’s HR manager, he shared with me future plans around office working policy. Proposals were being finalised prior to workforce consultation around a 40-60% in-office/virtual working policy, recognising that 100% office attendance was a thing of the past for most staff. The proposed approach offers a significant amount of flexibility and choice to staff, while also recognising North Norfolk’s responsibilities as an employer. For example, if staff members want to come in to the office five days per week for any reason, they can. Considerations around ongoing workforce engagement, health and wellbeing formulated the approach.

This is a very live topic for us at Solace, too. Pre-pandemic, future office accommodation was already a consideration as a result of our continuing growth and, while that remains the case today, the issues around what we do next have become far more complex and nuanced.

We’ve been working virtually for more than a year at this point, so it’s fair to say that the physical and cultural shift to the digital age has accelerated significantly – by a number of years, in my view. The change in circumstances means that we’re almost taking a ‘zero base’ approach to our future working arrangements.

It isn’t really about ‘office’ anymore, it’s about ‘workspace’ – and this can take many forms and have different meanings – from quiet desk space, through to meeting rooms and communal areas.

At the heart of our planning is staff consultation and early results suggest there are issues that are universally agreed (eg the importance of flexibility in where people work) and areas where views are more mixed (eg where and how onboarding, training, one to ones and appraisals take place). What is clear is that the social and wellbeing aspects are at the heart of everyone’s thinking. Indeed, team meetings have come top in the polling for why our teams want to come back into the office. Perhaps after a year of lockdowns and social distancing, the value of social mixing and community will have a renewed sense of importance in our working lives as we move forward.

So in summary, employers need to consider there is a greater depth of detail to re-opening offices and work spaces safely and sustainably than we might initially think – it goes beyond health and safety requirements and is far more nuanced than simply re-opening in the way things were back in February 2020. There are longer term workforce and business strategy considerations, too.

The sheer number of steps that workspaces will have to take will require a lot of planning, time and in the short term, financial investment and other resources – but the positive message it sends to current (and future) staff and the long-term return on investment shouldn’t be underestimated.

Steve Guest is director of executive recruitment and assessment at Solace in Business

• Additional contributions to this article were made by Karishma Vakta-Smith, assistant consultant, interim management at Solace in Business

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