Over the coming months, many people will be returning to their office or normal place of work after being away for (potentially) over a year. Returning to work – in particular, the dreaded inbox – after a 2-week holiday can sometimes feel daunting, let alone after an extended period of absence. When we have employees return from long-term sickness absences or maternity leave, we make adjustments to help ease the stress to get back into their normal routines. Returning from furlough, or home-working should be no different. Whilst some people will be delighted with the idea of being reunited with their colleagues and actually looking forward to arguing over whose turn it is for the tea round, many will be feeling anxious and potentially overwhelmed especially whilst the Covid virus remains present in our lives and in the media. 

1. Listening groups – Have some short sessions, or possibly carry out a pulse survey, to gauge the feelings about the easing of lockdown and the return to a little more normality. What concerns and ideas do people have about returning to work? How can you plan and implement these ahead of time? Communication is always key and this is a great starting point to taking that next step of bringing people back into work. A survey answered by more than 350 employees in Wuhan found that engagement and performance were highest when employees had mentally prepared for their return to work and their managers had demonstrated a commitment to promoting workplace health and safety.

2. Have an informal meet-up or a keeping-in-touch day – If someone is feeling nervous about returning, maybe it would be helpful to have them make an informal visit ahead of their actual return date. Popping in for a socially distanced coffee or getting their work area ready for their return might help to reduce any worries. 

3. ‘Meet and greet’ – It can feel intimidating to walk into a busy workplace after an extended period of time away. You can offer to meet them in the car park or at the main entrance to welcome them back and walk in together. It provides a feeling of safety in numbers but it goes a long way. This could be the direct manager, a team member, or any other colleague / familiar face that would make the returning employee feel comfortable.

4. Catch up on any changes – Like an induction for a new hire, take the time to bring the returning staff up to speed on any news, developments or changes that have happened whilst they’ve been away. This could be on a 1:1 or through more formal communications such as newsletters, bulletin boards or ‘all-employee’ calls. If there have been any process or system changes, make sure training is undertaken.  Even if it’s the same as before, some people may benefit and feel reassured by refresher training.

5. Allow time to re-adjust – As we said at the beginning, returning to an overflowing inbox can feel like a huge and overwhelming task to work through. Make sure you allow people time to sort through their emails, organize their calendars and catch up on everything that’s been happening. Help them to filter out anything junk / irrelevant so that they can concentrate on and prioritize the most important tasks. Also, encourage people to be taking regular breaks – especially from DSE – to help reduce fatigue and retain focus. 

6. Make it gradual – Whether it’s returning from furlough or working remotely, going from one extreme to another is rarely advisable. For the first few days, consider agreeing a phased return to work plan with reduced hours and gradually increasing this back to normal hours. If it doesn’t work to reduce hours, as an alternative, you could reduce duties and responsibilities and gradually reintroduce the full scope of duties over time. 

7. Hold regular welfare check-ins – Set a schedule for ongoing, welfare check-ins to understand how people are feeling/coping. Just because they are back through the door, it doesn’t mean all those worries have magically disappeared – readjustment takes time. It doesn’t need to be anything too formal; simply taking the time to ask how someone is doing and how they are finding things will give you an insight into any additional support that may be required. 

“Working 9 to 5” – not anymore, Dolly! – Does your organisation have a policy for flexible working? Our lives have been changed in many ways by the pandemic and during this time demands / caring responsibilities have shifted. Some people may like to work part-time on a permanent basis, while other people might have found working from home helpful by reducing commute times and/or costs and would like to do this long term, or maybe have a blend of home and office working.

63% of participants in a CIPD employer survey said that they planned to introduce or expand the use of hybrid working to some degree, combining time in the workplace with time at home, depending on the needs of the job, the individual and the team, and the team working practices. Every person is different and there is no ‘one size fits all’ but having a policy in place where people can make requests to fit there – and the business’ needs – will be essential. The availability of modern technology such as MS Teams, Zoom, etc. has shown us that the traditional 9-5 culture in the office can be disrupted in a positive way. Embrace change and engage with your people to create a culture that supports and motivates your workforce. 

Also, if you’re looking for more information on the UK rules surrounding COVID-19 and returning to work, this paper discusses the lockdown legislation, employer’s health and safety obligations, and when workers can refuse to go to work.

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