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Return to work - what should HR teams be thinking about

Return to work: what should HR teams be thinking about?

From shops reopening to EU countries lifting border controls, we’re increasingly starting to think about going “back to normal” following the coronavirus outbreak.

But what will this “new normal” look like when it comes to the workplace?

For many of us, the way we worked changed overnight when coronavirus hit, with the majority of the country working from home over the past few months.

The next challenge for HR teams is creating a return to work strategy that bridges the gap between our pre-outbreak working patterns and the new ways of working we’ve all got used to.

It’s a big challenge. Our latest piece of research, the Divided Together report, looked at the effect of lockdown on wellbeing, the rifts it’s caused between colleagues and what employees are expecting from this new normal.

When it comes to returning to work, we found that the UK workforce is divided between those who are keen to get back to a sense of normality and those wanting to safeguard their newfound flexibility.

Eager to get back

Having experienced a huge change to their usual routine, it’s no surprise that those who’ve been furloughed are most looking forward to getting back to work. In fact, they expect to be heading back to the office any day.

Three quarters of furloughed workers said they expect to be back at work by July with only a handful (5%) saying they’d still like to be on furlough.

With half of parents juggling childcare alongside work, 65% of parents were also keen to head back to the workplace.

Across the board, the most common reason for wanting to head back was for “get back to normal” with 57% saying they’re looking forward to returning.

The isolation of lockdown saw 40% of respondents saying they were looking forward to seeing colleagues again, with 15% pledging to be more social at work in the future.

Fears about losing flexibility

Not everyone surveyed, however, was as keen to head back to the office: those working from home were reluctant to give up their newfound flexibility.

Less than a third (30%) of those currently working from home would like to be back in the office full time in July. In fact, almost one in five (18%) home workers said they’d like to be furloughed.

When asked about their reluctance to return, home workers mentioned concerns about spreading the virus, the stress of commuting and giving up a way of working they’ve enjoyed as key barriers.

Health concerns are the biggest barrier

Whether they were looking forward to getting back or now, the Divided Together report revealed that the biggest cause of return-to-work anxiety was health concerns.

A huge 64% said they didn’t think it was safe to return currently, with more than half (57%) worried about their personal safety at work.

Concerns about the feasibility of social distancing could be driving these fears, with  53% saying they're not sure how they’ll be able to do their job whilst keeping at a safe distance.

These concerns were strongest amongst those who’ve been furloughed, so reassuring this group and all colleagues returning to the office with clear communications around safety measures being put in place should be an important part of any return to work strategy.

Invisible workers

One of the most interesting findings of the Divided Together report was that some workers are scared of being left behind once back at work, anticipating that others will get special treatment.

This was a big concern for almost half of parents (49%) as well as those who’ve continued going into their workplace throughout the outbreak (48%).

Making sure colleagues who’ve been in work throughout the crisis feel recognised and supported once others return to the workplace will be key to bridging workplace divides.

Managing stress and anxiety

After so many changes over the last few months, the idea of routines being turned upside down again by returning to work is also causing anxiety.

More than half (51%) said they’re anxious about going back to their normal routine and 36% said they’re not looking forward to general workplace stress and anxiety returning once they’re back in work.

Anticipating increased stress levels from the change in routine and providing additional mental health support for teams will be key to helping avoid rebound presenteeism when returning to the workplace.

Priorities for support

When designing your return to work strategy, our research showed certain groups are likely to need more support.

Those who’ve been furloughed have been particularly hard hit in terms of mental health, with 56% saying it’s got worse during lockdown due to financial concerns, missing their usual routine and being lonely.

Parents may also need additional help, with almost one in five (19%) saying they’re not sure how they’ll cope with childcare once their workplace reopens.

With 59% of parents saying they’ll miss the way they’ve been working over the past few months and 30% pledging to make work-life balance a career priority in the future, supporting this group with a flexible approach will be key to retention.

Employees are looking for more

Though certain groups may need additional support, our research found that employees across the spectrum are expecting more from their companies as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

With half of people reporting worsening mental health as a result of lockdown, 29% say they’d like more mental health support from their employer in the future.

A similar percentage (28%) are looking for additional wellbeing support and almost a quarter (23%) want support with their physical wellbeing.

For more insight about how teams are feeling about heading back to work, take a look at the Divided Together report or join our LinkedIn Live discussion on Thursday 18th June at 11am.

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