COVID-19: Returning to Work


Understandably, there are going to be a lot of questions about returning to the workplace post Covid-19, but the truth is, none of us really know what's going to happen or how to best tackle it... but here are our top tips for managing the return to work over the coming weeks/months.

The internet has had a good chuckle at the slightly baffling "Don't go to work, go to work" government instructions, but now that lockdown restrictions are slowly easing off, returning to the office is looking like a real possibility for many of us.

The trouble is, with the stress and anxiety experienced by most households as a result of the pandemic, many employees may feel reluctant or tentative about reentering a workspace – in fact, 65% of Brits are anxious at the prospect of going back to the workplace.

So, not only do employers and HR managers have to think of the practicalities and new compliance regulations, but they also have to consider how they're going to approach and reassure employees that every measure has been put in place to ensure their safety...

planning for the return

The lockdown has certainly brought new possibilities to light for some industries. Businesses that traditionally needed a physical location to operate from are finding that their employees can be just as productive and engaged when working from home.

While we're all eager to return to some kind of normality, it's also important to decide on a way forward that not only minimises risk, but also supports your business and its people in the long term.

Before you initiate the return to work conversation with employees, you should do conduct a risk assessment in line with the government guidance and regulations. For example: 

  1. Are there any apparent hazards in your existing work environment?
  2. Which employees will be most at risk?
  3. What kind of precautions and controls will you be able to put in place?
  4. Who will be responsible for overseeing and implementing the new health and safety measures?
  5. In what time frame can you execute your plan and ensure that everything is in place before employees return to work?

The above steps should provide a basic framework for the new challenges and hazards you need to tackle in your work environment.

From here, you should also assess the following points and whether they apply to your business:
  1. Is it essential that employees return to work in light of the hazards you've identified? If they were able to work remotely, is it necessary that they should now come back to your premises?
  2. As a duty of care, you have to ensure that your premises are safe for your employees. If they must return to work, you should take a staggered approach and only introduce small groups of workers back at a time to make the process more manageable.
  3. Are your employees happy and satisfied with your proposals? A mutual agreement is crucial, and the employer has to address any concerns raised by the employees or their representatives.

It's essential to start getting feedback from your employees before you go too deep into outlining your plans. This is because your staff may be able to point out issues that have been overlooked are invisible to you.

For the full HSE guidelines on managing risks and risk assessment at work, click here.

communicating with your team

Once you've completed the risk assessments and come up with a reassuring plan for a safe return to work, it's time to fully open up a dialogue with your workers – if you haven't already done so.

Start by sharing your risk assessment and demonstrating the steps you are undertaking to remove or reduce possible hazards.

Discuss the planned adjustments that may affect regular work routines and interactions. For example, you may have introduced a new schedule that allows for staggered start and finish times. This will help to prevent a sudden influx of footfall and make cross-contamination harder to manage. Take the time to make your employees aware of any additional facilities you have made available for hand washing and sanitising, as well as floor markings and new floor plans that allow for the prescribed 1-metre+ social distancing.

If working from home was a success, and the model is likely to continue, either fully or partially, you should also discuss that with your employees and make sure that everyone is on board with the idea.

Establishing a two-way conversation with your employees is vital; this is because the pandemic has introduced new challenges into their lives which may form obstacles to their return to work. Workers that relied on public transport may now be worried about undertaking that same peak hour journey. Families who relied on grandparents for childcare may not wish to put their elderly relatives at risk at the moment; others may be shielding or fall into vulnerable categories.

Understanding your employees' worries and co-creating a plan that puts their best interests at heart will help your business to move forward into the post-lockdown phase as a unified team that operates based on your company's values and goals.

social distancing and basic hygiene practice

At the time of writing, the 1-metre+ social distancing rule still stands. Regardless of whether things change in the future or not, putting some space between individuals is never a bad thing. High-speed cameras show that "a fine mist of mucus and saliva can burst from a person's mouth at nearly a hundred miles an hour and travel as far as 27 feet."

Keep your employees safe by frequently reminding them about the importance of social distance and regular sanitising.

If you previously relied on hot desking or shared workstations, you may have to review this approach or put a strict hygiene rota in place to ensure that all surfaces are sterilised after each use.

To avoid congestion, you can arrange one-way traffic pathways around the office and ask visitors and employees to use dedicated entrances. Make use of signs and friendly reminders to maintain awareness of the safety precautions in place as well as the hygiene and social distancing measures that should be adhered.

If PPE wasn't previously required at your place of work, it might not be necessary to enforce the use of it now. However, in circumstances where PPE is essential, it's the role of the employer to provide the required equipment to employees free of charge.

psychological impacts and precautions

Many studies warn of an impending anxiety crisis as individuals try to reintegrate back into some semblance of a regular routine. For months, many of us haven't used public transport, seen our families and loved ones, or engaged in normal social activities.

And sadly, some may have had to deal with the trauma of loss or the hardship of physically recovering from COVID-19.

Businesses and leaders need to take an empathetic approach when welcoming employees back to work. Ask about their fears or concerns; find out whether there may be something preventing them from returning to the office just yet. In some cases, it may be better to keep workers on furlough or work remotely until they feel ready to return.

A recent article revealed that 80% of respondents missed the social aspect of their job but also enjoyed the comfort of working from home and not having to commute. If remote working has been well received in your business, you may wish to keep your employees happy by allowing them to come in on alternating days. This will reduce the number of people entering your building and lower the risk of spreading disease.

Employees can see one another again but still enjoy a more comfortable balance between on-site and remote working. Important social bonds can be reestablished while also keeping everyone safe and more satisfied with their weekly schedule.

how we can support you through covid-19

At Sodexo, we understand that companies need to prioritise their employees' wellbeing while also finding a way to resume economic activity safely and responsibly.

Our experts have created helpful resources for HR teams to tap into when looking for advice and support during these unique times. Visit our dedicated resource page for all of our HR solutions for COVID-19. Feel free to get in touch with us for any further guidance.


Click here for more information on our HR solutions for Covid-19