Recent changes to the furlough scheme mean that previously furloughed employees can return to work, either at home or in the workplace, for any amount of time and in any shift pattern.
But what will the new post-lockdown working environment look like?
It is a question that politicians, business leaders and the media are desperately trying to predict, but as yet no one really knows the answer. Employers are desperate for business to get back to normal and they are busy preparing for it.
But, if there is one certainty right now it’s that working life will, for at least a while, be quite different from that before the onset of Covid-19.
Like it or not, Covid-19 has disrupted business as normal and transformed the way we work. Research by comparison site, Finder, found that that 60% of the UK’s adult population are currently working from home during the Coronavirus lockdown. Remote working has become the new enforced ‘norm.’ For some employees it has been liberating. For others, homeworking has taken its toll. Many businesses have eased into the new remote working regime with relative ease. Others have struggled. Some have furloughed staff and shut up shop because homeworking simply isn’t an option.
60% of the UK’s adult population worked from home during lockdown
As restrictions begin to ease, business leaders will be keen to get their employees back into the workplace. The success of this transition will depend on a number of factors. As well as practical social distancing measures, understanding the needs of employees is critical.
So why and how should businesses survey their staff as they return to work?
Employee surveys are an easy way for employers to find out what employees need and what they are worried about. Let’s consider the current landscape.
The emotional impact of Covid-19
As we emerge from our new home routines and contemplate getting back to the office, it’s not just the physical and practical nature of a return to work that leaders need to address. The emotional impact of this pandemic on the workforce is not to be underestimated.
‘Coronavirus has caused a mass emotional event in our lives’ says Roger Patulny, an associate professor of sociology at Wollongong University in Australia.
It is a global trauma from which we will have to adapt and heal in all aspects of our lives, including at work. For now, social distancing is an inevitable new norm. Economic predictions of a potentially deep recession will also be playing on many peoples’ minds.
A recent poll of 1,000 working adults, conducted by YouGov for the CIPD, found that 44 per cent reported feeling anxious about the prospect of going back to work because of the health risks posed by Covid-19. This highlights the need for businesses to be thinking about how they can support employees and quell workforce anxiety.
44% of employees are feeling anxious about going back to work
It’s important for employers to recognise that anxiety amongst workers returning to work isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Patulny points out the fact that many people will have become used to lockdown and be leading less hectic lives than before – something many are keen to take with them into the ‘new normal‘. Going back to the pressures of modern life pre-Covid may not be something everyone is looking forward to. Anxiety about returning to work isn’t just going to be about fear of infection.
What we know – the facts
Remote working has temporarily become the new norm. We have quickly adapted, including how we communicate. Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype and other conferencing platforms have enabled teams to stay connected. Many businesses have been very quick to establish a new norm and keep employees engaged as part of a team.
Employees have adjusted remarkably well. So well, in fact, that some employers will be considering how remote working could become a more permanent feature in their business strategy. Reducing overheads and operational costs could be one way to ride out any temporary downturn in business from a forthcoming recession.
Before rushing into any operational decisions, it is clear that employers need to consider how the pandemic has impacted employees in different ways. For some, furloughing has given people an extended break – time to recharge their batteries. Others have enjoyed the new experience of working from home, relieved of the long commute. There are people who have felt overwhelmed with the new regime and have struggled to create boundaries between work and family life. And some feel claustrophobic and crave the social aspects of the workplace.
In addition, we have to consider there is backdrop of devastating loss. Some people are coping with the grief of losing a friend or loved one to Covid-19. Others have had the virus and may be suffering with post-viral fatigue.
There are complex reasons behind anxiety about a return to work.
Everyone will have a different story, which equates to a different set of needs. Given the unprecedented situation, an employee survey is a vital tool. So, using a survey, how do employers capture the information they need and how can vastly differing needs be met to ensure businesses get back on track?
What we don’t know – assessing readiness for a return to work
Assessing readiness for a return to work is a key starting point. It’s no good getting employees back to work and retrospectively asking them what they need to feel safe, secure and be able to work productively. We can’t assume that everyone feels the same way. A one-size-fits-all approach will only alienate some people. It will create chasms in the workplace and productivity across teams will ultimately suffer.
It would also be a mistake to take the view that a survey is only going to be useful when ‘things return to normal.’
If there has ever been a time to understand your employees’ needs, it is now. An empathetic and considerate approach is vital. Supporting mental health in the workplace will be critical through such times of uncertainty. People have been socially isolating and they will need time to adjust when they come back to work. The more understanding employers have about the issues, the better they can plan, support and keep employees trust.
Surveying staff sends a positive message. It says you, as an employer, are listening and that you care.
Questions you need to ask
Employers need to ask specific questions in order to assess the readiness of individuals to return to work. Questions should include:
- How ready do you feel to return to the workplace?
- What concerns do you have about returning to the workplace?
- What do you think you need to feel confident about returning to the office/workplace?
- How do you feel about commuting to work?
- How have you managed working remotely?
- Would you consider working remotely in the future if it was an option?
- Is there anything you have missed while working from home?
- What are you looking forward to in regards to coming back to the workplace?
Communication is key
Understandably, most employees will be nervous about going back to work. Above all, they will want to know they are returning to a safe environment.
Employees will be asking: Will social distancing be adhered to? Will I come into contact with someone who could infect me? Has my workstation been disinfected? What new rules are there around hygiene? Will the company remain profitable and is my job at risk?
Employers need to be clear about the actions they are taking and why. Importantly, for businesses to be agile, they will need to survey employees much more regularly than before.
In order to maintain staff confidence, leaders and managers will need to communicate clearly. In such an unsettling period, employees need reassurance. Poor communication will only erode trust.
Staff will feel a lot happier when they are kept informed of any changes. Openness and trust are fundamentals of good company culture after all. A smooth transition of workers back into the workplace will rely on careful listening, empathy and open communication.
Consider a phased return to work based on survey results
What you do with your survey results is as important as the survey itself. There’s little point asking the right questions but doing nothing with the results. Sharing results and intended actions will build trust and credibility. It will build confidence in your employees that you are taking their safety and mental well-being seriously.
We Thrive’s survey software has been designed using human psychology to make gathering and acting on employee feedback quick and simple.
How people feel about going back to the workplace will be wildly different. Employers need to understand this and prepare for it. A phased return will enable staff to be properly supported. It is important employers understand that for some the transition will be harder. A survey could help employers to identify and prioritise the return of those employees who are keenest to get back to the workplace.
Most important of all is for employers to remember that future productivity and success will ultimately depend on how well they transition their staff.
WeThrive are currently offering businesses the opportunity to survey their employees FREE with a Covid-19 employee engagement survey. Get in touch with the We Thrive team to find out more.