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Return to the office: How can HR alleviate worries?

With more than half the UK population now having received a first Covid-19 vaccination and restrictions gradually being lifted, some kind of return to the office is looking increasingly likely. Ashleigh Webber explores the emotional impact on staff and how HR can prepare.

Whatever law firms are planning in terms of office use and hybrid working arrangements, many will expect a proportion of staff to return to their workplaces for at least some of the working week.

While this is welcome news for employees who crave the social side of work or a greater separation between work and home life, the impending return has filled many others with feelings of anxiety – and not just for health reasons. It has been more than a year since they have had to set an early alarm ahead of a lengthy commute, make small-talk with colleagues and attend face-to-face meetings, and some may be mourning the loss of the change of pace the pandemic presented.

“Many of our people have spent 12 months out of the office, so it’s understandable that some have concerns and are anxious about returning,” says Alison MacQuire, head of recruitment, emerging talent and diversity and inclusion at Eversheds Sutherland.

“This is mostly focused on concerns around health, and the use of public transport, although the successful roll-out of the vaccine is starting to calm many of those concerns. For the longer term, there is the concern from our people that they will lose the flexibility that they have enjoyed.”

Employees’ preferences

Research from Nyenrode Business University, the Open University and telephone answering service Moneypenny found that only 9% of remote workers wanted to continue to work from home full time, while 88% preferred a 50-50 home-office split.

Learning platform HowNow has also found that three- fifths of women would like to continue working from home, compared with a fifth of men.

MacQuire says Eversheds has collected extensive feedback from staff about their feelings about returning to the office. Most are keen to return, but in a blended way – spending part of the week at home and part of the week in their usual place of work.

This is also something that Charlene Gisele, former litigation lawyer and now corporate wellness consultant, has noted within the legal sector.

“The main concerns are around the commute – its safety with increased crowds, its length and the delays and resulting stress that often come with commuting,” she says.

“In addition, many will have the added pressure of re-arranging childcare and schooling to fit in with new daily patterns.”

Ambiguity causing anxiety

There is still a significant amount of ambiguity around how people will be working, not just this year, but over the next five years, adds Gisele.

Government guidance still states employees should work from home if they can, and it is not yet known for certain when this will change. Many firms are making arrangements on the proviso that offices will reopen on 21 June, when the government hopes all Covid-19 restrictions can be lifted.

“This type of hazy ambiguity tends to increase anxiety levels in employees and can negatively affect mental health, whilst for the firm, strategising certainly becomes more difficult,” says Gisele.

It is also not yet known how “normal” working arrangements in offices will be. Earlier in April the Department for Business, Enterprise and Industrial Strategy began consulting with businesses around how they could bring employees back into offices en masse in a safe manner, including when the “one-metre plus” rule could be lifted.

With new strains and variants of Covid-19 circulating, and many younger workers unlikely to have been fully-vaccinated on 21 June, control measures including hand sanitising stations, one-way systems and occupancy limits in meeting rooms may well continue.

Communicating sensitively

When firms’ plans become more concrete, HR teams will need to help assuage employees’ concerns about the return to the office in a sensitive manner.

When its offices have been permitted to open in a limited capacity during the pandemic, MacQuire says that Eversheds Sutherland has communicated that people can return voluntarily and flexibly.

“We also launched a working well initiative during the pandemic, sponsored by Keith Froud, international managing partner, to help people working at home and we will look to produce something similar in terms of hints and tips on returning to the office, based on our knowledge and the feedback that we have collated,” she says. “We are also able to reassure our people in terms of the cleanliness and hygiene in our offices with our extensive regimes and protocols.”

Eversheds Sutherland has developed a return-to-the-office hub on its intranet, which brings together resources including office access protocols, FAQs and photo guides to show staff what to expect. It also has an app that allows staff to schedule their attendance to ensure capacity limits are not exceeded.

“We have made lateral flow device testing kits available for use at home and encourage people to undertake tests on a regular basis if they intend on working in the office. And we continue to provide a dedicated HR advice line for all our people if they have any questions or concerns around returning to the office,” explains MacQuire.

Vaccination policies

When it comes to Covid-19 jabs, firms are still figuring out their approach and whether policies around vaccination are necessary or appropriate, says Nathan Peart, managing director at legal recruitment and management firm Major, Lindsey & Africa.

He says that vaccination-related concerns will be difficult to deal with if “lines are drawn between people that don’t want to take the vaccine versus those that think everyone should”.

“It demands a very fine balance and people will feel justified with their views so offering assurances and policy based on science (e.g. how herd immunity works/is achieved and where the risks are), while also supporting people with ways to minimise risk in certain circumstances – for example, if they have somebody vulnerable at home – is likely to be the best way to ensure all employees feel heard and supported,” he explains.

Valerie Charbit, wellbeing director at the Criminal Bar Association and head of wellbeing at Red Lion Chambers, says that, irrespective of whether they have had a vaccination or not, some infection control measures will likely remain in place for all people visiting its premises.

“We think everyone is keen to receive a vaccine but we will not force anyone to have one,” she says. “As medical records are confidential we do not expect members to have to disclose whether they have been vaccinated. However, all our members are keen to look after each other so we would be very surprised if anyone was unwilling to be vaccinated.”

Ease in gently

Many firms will look to ease their staff in gently after such a significant period away from the office.

Peart says: “Especially at the start of the office return, it would be sensible to ease into reopening as getting into a routine will be strange and uncertain for many. Some will have moved or made life changes and will need time to adjust. There is no question that associates have really stepped up and worked hard so will and should expect some breathing room when things begin to reopen.

Gisele recommends that firms create questionnaires to ensure that employees can shape what the return to office will look like, as well as regularly checking in with staff to see what their working preferences and wellbeing needs are.

“Remember that health and wellbeing needs have changed – solutions must go beyond the obligatory gym membership, which may not even be possible nor reassuring at this point. Instead, work on fostering an authentic wellness culture and not simply ticking boxes,” she says.

“However, there are plenty of positives that firms can focus on too – the camaraderie, being able to meet colleagues in person again, having the social element of work back – these are all great for mental health and a very welcome change from the isolation many of us have faced during lockdown.”

Breaking the return to work down into phases is possibly the safest way to help staff to adapt to new arrangements and test what works best, she adds.

“When it comes to group working, exposure therapy is the best tool,” she says. “This means taking baby steps to reintegrating. For instance, you may offer one day a week in the office, building up to two, then three etc. Re-introduce meetings slowly and regularly check employee comfort levels.”

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