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Coronavirus: Promoting employee engagement as the lockdown is lifted

By Sheila Attwood

The return to the workplace has started for many organisations, but that workplace is likely to look very different to the pre-coronavirus (COVID-19) one, and HR professionals are already looking at how their practices will need to change to adapt.

XpertHR’s fifth Coronavirus and HR survey found that most organisations now have at least some employees in the workplace, although very few are open to their entire workforce. During the lockdown, HR professionals had to adapt quickly to the new normal of furloughed employees and widespread homeworking, learning along the way what worked best for their business. Now they are having to put all their experience into finding the right way forward as the lockdown – but not necessarily the threat from coronavirus – is lifted.

Among those taking part in the survey, there appears to be a sense that there will be no return to the way things were before, even when the threat of the coronavirus pandemic has been removed. Some good practices have emerged and there is a balance around retaining what worked well when implemented as a response to the lockdown, and changing practices that existed previously. As one HR professional told us, their challenge is “getting people to understand that changes to the business and team have to happen if the business is to survive”.

For example, on communication one organisation noted: “Since the pandemic started, we have been very good with our communication and all staff (furloughed or working from home) have maintained a very positive approach. While we have learned some good lessons during this time and will continue with the new practices where we can, I think keeping up the level of communication is going to prove extremely difficult when we return.”

In the words of another respondent, the period of “firefighting the immediate challenges posed by the COVID-19 emergency” is now over, and businesses need to be “refocussing on broader objectives”.

Having employees on board as the business evolves over the next few months will be key to making it a success. Respondents suggested a number of ways to make this happen:


      Ask employees how they feel about returning to the workplace. Employees are more likely to feel at ease if there is genuine consultation, perhaps through the use of employee surveys to check in and gather their views on returning to the workplace. For many, homeworking will continue for the time being. But now that workplaces are reopening, one respondent noted that “there is a real divide among people and it is a challenge balancing those opinions and views. As an example, we have people who are desperate to get back to the office as they live on their own, for instance, but others are really hesitant to come back without a viable vaccine.” A flexible approach, with options for different employees, is likely to be needed.


      Be mindful of those returning from furlough. For those who have been on furlough and will be returning to work on full contractual hours, organisations should ensure comprehensive communications around what that return to work will look like – whether returning to the workplace or working from home. Many employers are taking the time to set out changes to the business during the period employees have been on furlough, and to set realistic

targets/objectives for those returning. There are a number of employers who are working on a phased-return model for those returning from furlough with the expectation that this group will take some time to return to full productivity. Employees who return to work part time and remain on furlough part time will need careful monitoring to ensure that the rules of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme are not compromised but also that the stress of such an arrangement is acknowledged and addressed.


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      Reassure employees with information and training on health and safety measures. Providing detailed information on the health and safety measures that the organisation has taken to ensure the workplace is COVID Secure will go some way to reassure employees about their return. Many respondents referenced the risk assessments they have conducted and it will be useful to let employees know that all steps required to meet the needs of the COVID Secure guidance have been taken. Providing information on floor plans – some employers have prepared videos to show how the workplace will be laid out – hand sanitisers, check-in systems, refreshments, canteen or other tea/coffee making facilities, desk options, and cleaning programmes will all help to reassure employees. Where PPE or other interventions are needed, many employers are offering training on health and safety measures. Further ahead, employers need to be aware of the problems when workers start returning to the workplace. One respondent foresees a challenge around “people wanting to operate beyond organisation risk assessment as they view things are safe enough”. Organisations will need to ensure ongoing adherence to safety measures, and that employees do not become complacent when the feeling outside of the workplace is that life is more normal.


      Offer mental health and wellbeing support. Respondents were conscious of the impact that the lockdown and subsequent lifting of it have had on employees’ mental health and wellbeing. Many referenced the role of mental health first-aiders, and some have ensured this group have received further training to deal with the specific challenges faced by employees during this time. Other respondents told us that they have arranged sessions with clinical psychologists or other mental health professionals for interested employees, both to address anxiety around returning to the workplace but also to ensure any ongoing issues are being addressed, including pre-existing mental health issues. Respondents are also making resources available to employees such as guidance, top tips and information prepared by mental health charities, and using intranets or portals set up to focus primarily on the organisation’s response to the pandemic.


      Check in on line managers. Many line managers are facing their own challenges, based on their homeworking arrangements and childcare, or working conditions. Respondents told us that they were taking extra efforts to be mindful of the role line managers are expected to play in transitioning the workforce from furlough to work, from homeworking to the workplace or a combination of both. Extra support and guidance for line managers is important to ensure they are clear on what is required by the organisation and also how they can best support employees. Respondents also referenced those line managers who are also on furlough and, as such, cannot be expected to perform their line managerial duties. Reminders of this to the wider management team was sometimes necessary.


      Keep communicating. Respondents pointed to use a variety of platforms to communicate with staff who are working from home to ensure as many communication preferences as possible are met, and also to ensure consistency in messaging. Communicating with employees on furlough is a top priority for HR, but there is awareness around the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme rules, in that employees are not to carry out any work during the time they are on

furlough so communication needs to be centred on updating staff. Employees remaining on furlough should continue to receive regular and informative updates. They will be aware of the dates attached to the scheme so it is important that they are kept updated regularly to minimise stress and anxiety.

Many HR professionals will empathise with the survey respondent who told us they were “having to face the reality that redundancies are still inevitable as the industry we manufacture for is still in lockdown and forecasting a very slow return to normal”. There is no denying that there are difficult decisions ahead, but keeping employees informed will help to maintain engagement among those who will be seeing the business through the recession and out the other side.



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