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Returning to the Workplace After Covid-19

3 months ago by Andrea Amato
work

Practical guidance to navigate one of our greatest challenges today.
 
A few years ago, it was hard to envision a working world largely set around home. Remote work was a job perk not everyone had access to, and the early wake-up calls to beat the commute traffic to the office was a sentiment shared by all. Come the Covid-19 pandemic, and the working society we once knew rapidly transforms to a remote one globally. Halfway into 2021, the international vaccine roll out is in full swing, and employers begin to seriously consider returning to the office.

Return to work after long-term absence is hardly a simplistic process, joint with novel working amendments where organisations consider a more hybrid model of work rather than return to an office environment. Aside from organisational concerns, employers must watch for governmental rules, where regulations bounce between complete lockdowns to relaxed social freedoms. With these factors, employers must be mindful of reopening their office environments whilst attending to the health and wellbeing of workers.

As a result of the pandemic, how employees fulfil their roles and communicate with colleagues have drastically changed. It has also highlighted a myriad of concerns for workers, including worsening mental health in different industries and poor management between work and home life responsibilities. This is the time for employers to take into account these changes and adopt a flexible approach to accommodate supportive initiatives. Employers must communicate the needs of employees and understand their novel expectations for jobs in Malta and abroad.


Planning Under Restrictions

Different countries worldwide are navigating the pandemic at their own pace, where some are experiencing lesser Covid-19 cases than others. For those countries still experiencing high case load and strict lockdown measures, an article such as this may feel premature, and practical recommendations still surround a remote first attitude. However, for countries easing lockdown restrictions, remaining up to date with current regulations will help construct short-term plans to ease employees into the office. This could mean some adaptation of the following:​

  • Continued social distancing measures where employees space out in the office and the environment does not work at full capacity,

  • Reconfigure workspaces to accommodate the above including movement of furniture,

  • Limitations in accessing common areas such as a kitchen or lounge spaces,

  • Ensuring the office is well ventilated by keeping more windows open than usual, and

  • Increased sanitation measures where the office is cleaned regularly, and hand sanitising stations are available.

Depending on the office space, there are certain measures employers can apply to suit a duty of care for employees. For some, this can be difficult, such as reducing desk space in smaller offices, however organisations remain responsible in reducing any exposure risk for employees and be proactive about any concerns raised by workers.
 
Short-term and initial planning will mainly revolve around health and safety guidelines with current Covid-19 research and recommendations. However, it is worth thinking about long-term plans as well, namely in terms of introducing policy amendments regarding flexibility. As Covid-19 shun a light on employee disparities in digital skills and family responsibilities, employers have to re-think inclusive initiatives to foster a supportive workforce.


Prioritising Health and Safety

Governmental recommendations regard health and safety a main priority when returning to the office, guiding organisations to conduct necessary risk assessments to ensure the wellbeing of employees. Employers can refer to Covid-19 specific risk assessments, publicly available by government institutions. For general practice, organisations should communicate health and safety measures to all employees and have any policies made accessible. Any occupational concerns should be discussed with the health authorities and receive further guidance where appropriate.

Reassure remote and in-office teams that their health is a priority, and that the organisation is applying the necessary procedures to keep them safe as they return to the workplace. Remember that Covid-19 has brought a lot of anxiety, stress, and instability, so regular and open communication is important. Ensure employees follow a set of rules, and provide safety recommendations employees can apply both in the workplace and at home.

Depending on the regulation’s organisations wish to adopt, information regarding how to abide by these effectively, such as wearing a mask in the office properly, are important to consider. Employers may have to organise a training session or two to outline their specific Covid-19 related safety requirements. When informing and training staff on health and safety measures, outline why these measures are important to apply in line with current research. Briefing employees will help prevent safety misuse and share knowledge that will assist in spreading informed awareness, even outside office hours.

Questions for employers to review going forward:
  • Is social distancing possible in the office?

  • How will my employees conduct meetings and other events such as conferences?

  • How can I care for communal areas such as kitchen and lounge spaces?

  • How can I support team members, who often work closely together, whilst maintaining social distancing?

  • Can I roster in teams coming into the office to maintain adequate social distancing?

The above represents a summary of considerations when returning to the workplace. Aside from these, remember to keep staff well-informed through reputable sources and remain up to date with current governmental and medical research, to help inform effective decision-making.


The Case of Furloughed Workers

The pandemic has undoubtedly wrought economic hardship across organisations and countries in general, leaving high levels of redundancy and compulsory leave of absence. Returning to the workplace could mean recalling furloughed employees, transitioning their work from home job routine into the office. It can be difficult for furloughed workers to return to the office, and it may be worth considering a re-induction of sorts to help smoothen the transition.

The circumstances of furloughed workers vary significantly, from employees unable to work for a few months to even a year. Some experienced flexible hours, where employees worked under reduced hours. The decision made to return these workers to the office depends on the reason they were originally furloughed. A furloughed worker could have been a result of their work being unable to be done from home, the organisation was required to temporarily close (such is the case for many organisations in hospitality), and workers unable to continue their role as a result of health issues.

Communication plays a large role in addressing the needs of employees and ensuring these workers return to a Covid-19 safe environment.

 
Long-term Planning and the Role of Leaders

Many employers and leaders alike are not only looking to plan return to work short-term but are already considering long-term plans through a more flexible mindset. Work trends come and go, but flexibility and inclusive practices are here to stay. Organisations are now looking toward constructing a hybrid model of work, where employees adopt a varied routine between working from home and attending the office. Although there is less consensus on how this will be done exactly, such as how many days to work from home among other details, employers must revaluate business requirements alongside employee expectations.

Commonly in people management, leaders should comprehensively understand any policy they introduce regarding health and safety measures alongside hybrid work implications. As much as possible, employers should be prepared to answer employee queries and act as a supportive role-model throughout. Create a positive workplace culture that allows all voices to be heard and issues raised in order to tackle them effectively. Leaders should be fair and consistent as we all continue to navigate a rapidly evolving working world.