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After COVID-19: Return to work and the “new normal”

COVID-19 has left the whole world shaken. There's a lot of debate going on about how soon life will return to normal, and whether things will ever be quite the same as used to be. Certainly the 'post COVID19 return to work' is a hot topic right now, particularly after recent advice from the UK Government.

Millions of workers have been furloughed, while others have lost their jobs entirely and companies have folded. Although it's difficult to predict exactly what's going to happen, It's important to discuss how to prepare to return to work, particularly following the latest advice from the UK Government.

Governments may call for staggered returns

British transport secretary Grant Shapps recently told the BBC that the government may request that businesses stagger the working hours of employees. This makes a lot of sense, as overcrowding on public transport could risk a new wave of infections. Railway companies predict that this will be extremely difficult to manage. One estimate suggests that passenger capacity per-carriage could be reduced by 70-90%.

Another factor for employers to consider is how a staggered return might affect staff members, who may be unable to get their full hours back immediately. Many employees who are currently unable to work are depending on government support, either through furlough compensation of up to £2,500 a month, or via universal credit. Though there are calls for further extension or a tapering off, the job retention scheme is currently set to run out around the end of June.

Empty office rooms may soon start to seem some life again.

Will finding a job after lockdown be difficult?

Considering how to prepare to return to work is even more difficult without a job to go back to at all. Many businesses were forced to make layoffs as a result of the outbreak, while others went out of business entirely. Near the beginning of April, Forbes even started a bankruptcy watch-list for companies in danger of collapsing into administration. So there's sure to be a lot of people using their time in isolation to revamp their CVs.

While some of the recently laid-off have found work in essential services, many of these contracts are likely to be on a temporary basis. Especially in the case of a staggered return, essential employers would be under pressure to honour their obligations to pre-existing staff with regard to fair distribution of hours. Even those who have managed to find something to tide them over might be forced to look for jobs when the lockdown ends.

Will remote work play a bigger role in the future?

You don't need to have been keeping up with our blog (although we'd definitely recommend it!) to know that remote work has become incredibly popular, and played an essential role in the adaptation of many organisations to the restrictions in place due to COVID-19. Flexibility arrangements, particularly remote work, but also potentially job-sharing and flexi-time, will most likely play a role for those preparing to return to work.

Research prior to the outbreak of coronavirus would suggest that such widespread implementation of remote work could cause it to be more widely used on a permanent basis. In their 2019 "œState of Remote Work" report, Buffer surveyed 2,500 remote workers. They found that an overwhelming 99% of respondents wanted to work remotely, at least part of the time, for the remainder of their careers.

But this research comes from a point when any remote work scheme that was implemented had time to be planned, tested and refined. Many teams, and even whole organisations, will not have had much of a framework in place for remote work prior to the state of emergency.

Without the proper guidance in place, newly-minted remote workers are struggling to adapt, according to a recent survey of knowledge workers in the US by Slack. 45% of the survey respondents worked remotely. 66% of those reported that this was due to COVID-19, versus only 27% who "œnormally" worked from home. Nearly half of newly remote-working respondents reported that it negatively impacted their sense of belonging, but wasn't this the case for more the more experienced respondents. This suggests with time and proper implementation, social connectedness could improve.

Does the return to work pose a risk to vulnerable employees?

Public transport companies are expecting great difficulties from even a staggered return. And even at only around 20% capacity, the question remains of how much risk this would pose to the physically vulnerable, such as people with compromised immune systems or pregnant women, people who might be expected to return to work. 

For these people, the issue of how to prepare to return to work (whenever that may be - the likelihood being these groups will be delayed further in their return to work) comes with serious personal risks attached. 

Meetings will have to continue to take place digitally or at a far greater distance than we are used to seeing.

How can the risks of a return to work be managed?

When businesses do begin to reopen and employees start preparing to return to work, it will be a question of how each business can most safely and effectively restart operation. The CIPD have released a guide for how to prepare to return to work after COVID-19. They outline the three "˜most prevalent' strategies that businesses will use to reopen.

  • Continued furlough: Not all businesses will be able to begin trading again immediately, and some will be unable to get furloughed staff back to work.
  • Trading on a limited basis: These businesses may be able to get some of their essential staff back to work, but will also utilise remote work where possible. Other staff may remain on furlough.
  • Trading with fully remote staff: Those businesses which primarily employ knowledge workers or provide digital services can reopen fully, but with their entire staff working remotely.

CIPD also points out that lockdown measures are likely to be "˜lifted incrementally', and anyone able to return to their workplace will probably experience continued social distancing measures. Employers will need to make certain considerations, such as:

  • How 2m social distancing can be accommodated in the workplace.
  • How communal areas (canteens, toilets, smoking areas, etc"¦) can be kept safe.
  • Providing sanitation stations and ensuring that staff members regularly wash their hands.
  • Additional PPE, such as masks, gloves and hand gel.
  • Training in proper PPE usage. 

Businesses will also have to ensure that all necessary measures are taken to protect physically vulnerable people re-entering the workplace. 

On top of that, some employees may be reluctant to return due to anxiety over the risk of infection. CIPD highlights in its guide that many people may be juggling commitments and that as everyone readjusts, workplace routines might feel different. 

For these reasons, it's important to some form of employee assistance program to help staff transition smoothly back into their working lives. The UK government website is continuing to be updated with developments around COVID-19, as well as guidance for employers.  For a look at what's happening globally, check out the World Health Organisation website.

Would you be interested in seeing how Weekly10 allows organisations to keep engagement high even when working remotely?