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Should employers be sending their teams back to work?

A version of this article was originally published by We Are The City >

When lockdown eases again, while the lifting of restrictions will come as a relief to many employers, how safe do employees feel about returning? Cal Whaley discusses…

Moreover, what can employers do to reassure and support the psychological wellbeing of their workforce? Physical safety is a given; employees will expect that since they have been asked to return to work, the necessary health and safety adjustments will have been made to their workplaces. Tackling the psychological safety of employees will be a greater challenge.

Empathy from bosses remains key. Acknowledging each employee as an individual is now even more essential, as this new norm begins. COVID-19 has created an ongoing lack of certainty causing anxiety levels to soar. Bosses need to be mindful of how people are feeling, following many weeks in lockdown, and there is likely to be a window where employees will have to readjust to working life and a new norm. People won’t be back working at full tilt from day one.

Employers can help ease this level of worry by creating psychologically safe spaces where their team is encouraged to speak openly about how they are feeling without the concern of negative repercussions. This will enable people to be honest about the barriers they’re facing which they feel could hold them back in the workplace, be it child care arrangements or caring for someone vulnerable. There cannot be one blanket rule. This is much easier said than done, however, this approach is ultimately what diversity and inclusion in the workplace is.

A recent conversation with Hannah, a marketing and events manager and mother of three based in Dorset, highlighted the importance of both flexibility and safe psychological spaces. Like many in the hospitality industry, Hannah has been hit hard by the effects of COVID-19. Her company has been forced to furlough employees in three-week stints to ensure that the company remains operational, relying on skeleton staff working to reduce costs.

When Hannah is working she is now able to split her time between the office and working from home. This level of flexibility has had numerous benefits. It enables her to plan her days according to her environment, at home her role, like many, is divided by homeschooling and her workload. On these days she plans a more admin focused day where she can pick up and put down work when interruptions occur. She saves more creative and thought-provoking tasks, such as copywriting, for the office where she can fully focus on the task in hand. Managing and planning her workload is nothing new to Hannah, but it has become a helpful tool while working during the pandemic. She describes how this approach has helped to reduce stresses which could be easily imposed through a more regimented method with tight deadlines. This way of working has evolved from Hannah being vocal in the workplace on what works for her and her boss being empathetic and accommodating to help her juggle home and work commitments in tandem.

Hannah agreed that she didn’t feel physical safety was a huge worry for her. She has trusted that her employer has implemented the correct procedures and when showing clients around the venue she will always be mindful and socially distance. Furthermore, her employer has staggered employees days in the office to reduce numbers enabling her team to socially distance effectively. Mentally, Hannah has found this approach to be beneficial, she describes getting a real boost from being around colleagues in the office and appreciates their presence, she believes it would be a very different story if she was to be in the office alone.

There is no doubt that the effects of COVID-19 will see a shift in leadership style across many organisations, in the short term at least. Calm, thoughtful, inclusive leaders with a human approach in the workplace are now more important than ever. Companies which try to return to old systems and resume regular working too quickly are at risk of creating a toxic environment, missing a trick to establish a stronger, more empowered team.

Planning teams return to the workplace needs to be done strategically and in a well-thought-out way. Many businesses will now be fighting for their lives following the impact of COVID-19. This is likely to be reflected in hiring freezes which result in a heightened demand on existing employees. For businesses to exit this crisis afloat, companies need their people, they need them to get stuck in. Organisations have the power to be agile and adapt to implement new ways of working, but, as Hannah has shown, employees also play their part. We all can create our own safe space and speak up on what works best for us as individuals. For leaders to be more human, they need to hear what their workforce want from them. Transparency in this case works both ways, employees should be encouraged to step forward and push for what they find works for them as individuals. This will create a representative view of their peoples wants and needs, equipping businesses with the insights they need when considering implementing new approaches. This inclusive approach holds the potential for hugely rewarding benefits all round.

The previous norm has been tarnished, now it is about being human. It’s as simple as that.

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