COVID-19: developing an effective phased return to work policy

7 min read  |   19 June, 2020   By Nick Hardy

A yellow sticky note is stuck on a calendar with the words "back to work" on it.

We recently co-hosted a webinar with our partner Rebecca Woolmington, MD of HR Central. Rebecca is a leading HR expert who is currently supporting businesses and helping them devise policies for full and partial returns to the workplace.

As no businesses in the UK have had to cope with such a testing and delicate area of people management before, we wanted to look at the steps businesses need to take to create a blueprint for returning to work and overcome some of the many challenges companies are now facing.

The webinar was attended by more than 300 people, most of whom are owners or managers of UK SMEs and charities. During the session we polled our attendees to find out where they are – as of week 13 of lockdown– in terms of preparing for the return to work.

Current attitudes: just 8% of business leaders ready to return 

Firstly, we asked how many business leaders were ready for a return to the office. Only 8 per cent of people felt they were very prepared to return to the office, with the remaining respondents split more of less down the middle in terms of either being somewhat prepared and not very prepared for a return to the office.

In addition, 55 per cent of those surveyed are concerned or very concerned about returning to the workplace. Only 19 per cent are not at all concerned about a return. If this is the case for business leaders then it’s likely that many of their people are currently feeling the same way.

We also asked people how they felt about using public transport for commuting after lockdown. 87 per cent – an enormous majority – admitted they do not feel comfortable commuting this year. Only 12 per cent said they would be happy to use public transport in 2020.

Rebecca advised that communicating company plans for returning to work is essential as everyone needs to be clear about when they are expected to come back. She pointed out that springing the news on people is not a sensible idea and that the process needs careful planning. Rebecca advised to take longer when devising plans – than one would normally do so – as many employees will feel  nervous about returning.

Many leaders have already had to adapt to more open methods of communication with their teams with an emphasis on collaboration. Developing a company’s culture has and will continue to be key to broadening communication channels and keeping them open. This is a subject we explored in depth in our 2020 Culture Economy Report.  

Sowing the seeds for partial and full returns

 People need to be clear for when they are returning and how many days per week they will be required to be in the workplace. Our poll revealed that 40 per cent of leaders are planning to implement a policy which allows people to work at least three days at home. 46 per cent indicated that they will require team members to work for at least 3 days in their workplace. Just 5 per cent are planning a return with people working 5 days per week in the workplace.

People need to be mentally prepared as well as organised in terms of the practicalities (e.g. ensuring they have childcare in place) before they return to work. Whatever policy a business decides to implement, they should provide team members with as much notice as possible and keep them updated as the situation evolves.

As different team members will be at different stages in terms of how prepared they feel to return to the workplace and with some feeling stressed or anxious, Rebecca suggested involving an occupational health specialist. They can help people manage and overcome anxiety, mentally preparing themselves for their return to work. Furloughed employees may need extra support as many may be feeling particularly distanced and isolated from the workplace and their colleagues.

The Royal College of Occupational Therapists has published an online directory of UK specialists.

There are also steps business owners and managers can take to support people suffering from anxiety which we discussed in this blog

Why a ‘pull’ strategy is so important

Policies need to ‘pull’ rather than ‘push’ people back into the workplace, especially those who are fearful of a return. People will differ in their attitude towards returning to the workplace, with some needing greater encouragement than others. Pushing people back to the workplace against their will could create ill-feeling and resentment which is the last thing businesses need as they plan for recovery.

People also need reassurance that their workplace is fit for their return. This is all part of creating a ‘pull’ rather than ‘push’ strategy. As a blueprint for returning to work, Rebecca recommended setting out a checklist.

Ten points to cover in a back to work checklist 

  • Guidance regarding travel and public transport
  • Workplace risk assessment developments
  • Managing social distancing, especially in communal areas
  • Ensuring screening is in place
  • Installing signage
  • Making sure hand sanitiser is available
  • Arranging regular deep cleaning
  • The use of workplace facilities (e.g. air conditioning)
  • Planning for visitors and couriers
  • Communicating shift and rota plans

Practical tips for the return - managing shifts and rotas

With many businesses planning a phased return to work, allowing a limited people back into the workplace at any one time, many managers face the challenge of managing shifts and rotasThese can be time-consuming to manage manually or by using spreadsheets.  

We will soon be releasing brand-new rota management software which automates rota related tasks and also enables managers to communicate shift information to their team members.  

To help UK small businesses along the road to recovery, subscribing to Breathe Rota is free until 1st January 2021. For more information, please click here 

Negotiations, agreements and documentation

Once a company has decided what its policy and timetable for returns are to be, it is important to not only document and record these but also communicate these cross wider teams so everyone is clear.  

Some employees may question where their workplace is yet safe for return and therefore it’s important to be able to demonstrate that this is the case and that measures are in place to ensure this continues. Rebecca emphasised the importance of carrying out ongoing workplace risk assessments. The Health and Safety Executive have recently published an updated guide to risk assessments 

 Managing people who are nervous about returning will need careful handling. Discussions and meeting minutes regarding performance and expectations should be recorded and stored. Rebecca recommended that meeting minutes and agreements are written up and signed by managers and their team members. Recording and transcribing meetings held using applications such as Zoom is also a very sensible precaution.  

Additional resources for your business

We're keeping our COVID-19 help page regularly updated with resources designed to help businesses come back stronger.

We have also co-hosted a number of webinars with leading HR experts on subjects including resilience and employment law.

Find out more about how HR Central can help your SME. 


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Author: Nick Hardy

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