Last reviewed 10 June 2021
Offices have started re-opening and over the summer many of us will return to buildings we might not have been in for well over a year. Lizzie Broadbent explores some of the health, safety, security and wellbeing implications and what leaders can do to make the return to the office a positive experience.
In a recent survey of more than 3000 UK workers, fewer than 1 in 10 said they wanted to return to the office full time and 78% said they would prefer to work in the office for only two days or fewer a week.
If employers are listening, it is fair to assume that many people will be in the office less often than they were 12 months ago. Surveys asking colleagues about their preferred working patterns might help you work out how to configure the space but, while some people can’t wait to get back to a shared physical working environment, others are more anxious. Here are three key health, safety and wellbeing dimensions to consider.
Connecting with colleagues
For many the return to the office means finally seeing some familiar faces in real life rather than on a screen. There are some colleagues we will have stayed closely connected to but others we might have lost touch with over the last year. “How have you been?” is a question that could throw up a wide range of responses so keep your calendar free of too many fixed meetings on those first days back so you have time to listen to the answers.
There will also be new faces, people who have joined during the pandemic and have only ever experienced the organisation in remote-working mode. If they joined 12 months ago, they might feel like well-integrated members of the team but they will know nothing about the office norms or where to get a good sandwich at lunchtime. What support might they need at this point?
And some people will be missing, due to retirement, redundancy, resignation, illness or even death. The return to the office might make losses that happened some time ago feel fresh and colleagues could well need time and space to mourn.
Re-setting the norms
We take the cues for our habits and behaviours from the environment we are in. Sometimes place gives very strong cues: we know we should whisper in a library and shouldn’t run by a swimming pool. But for the past year or so our office has been in our homes and has created a whole new set of acceptable work-related behaviours.
The cues from the office environment play an important role in workplace safety and security. Whether it is putting on your ID badge as you arrive at the office, locking your laptop when you go for a coffee or holding onto the handrail on the stairs, many workplace habits, where still relevant, which used to be at least semi-automatic will have to be re-learned. This might take longer for someone only going to be in the office two or three days a week.
Less frequent and more variable attendance also means you can’t rely on people being in a particular place at a particular time as perhaps you used to, which could mean new practices around communication.
Re-evaluating the workspace
With more people working flexibly, many organisations are reconfiguring their space to make more room for small and larger group discussions and less space for desk work. Some have moved location. Construction has continued apace throughout the pandemic so even if you are returning to a familiar office, the environment in which it sits could have changed.
This creates a range of health and safety implications. Outside the building, the road layout around the building could be unfamiliar, with a new cycle path to watch out for when crossing the main road or a new bus lane. The fire assembly point might have moved.
Within the office, if you are working at a different desk, in a different area of the floor or possibly a different floor every time you come into the office, the location of the closest fire exit is always going to be moving. And with more flexible working, how are you now going to ensure that you always have enough people trained and available to act as fire wardens and first aiders?
What can leaders do?
Even if you are going back to an office you were in before, it might be worth behaving as if you are going somewhere new. Then create personas reflecting the new reality so you can walk through scenarios in a way that makes it more likely you will identify the key health, safety, security and wellbeing risks.
Talk to your teams about their health, safety and wellbeing priorities and concerns to see if you have missed anything. Make sure you are spending time both one-to-one and as a group exploring the questions they bring up. Agree whether you want to do something special to welcome new joiners or to acknowledge those not coming back. And spend time identifying practices you have developed during this extended period of remote working that you want to retain when you are co-located in the same physical environment.
If many people are only going to be in the office two or three days a week, is there an easy way to see who is around on the same day as you so you don’t miss opportunities for a quick catch-up? Is there some wall space where people can “check in” and highlight which bit of the floor or building they are going to be in that day?
Make it easier for colleagues to do the right thing with visible cues and simple communications. If your top concern is fire safety, for the first month back in the office, you could have a five-second tannoy announcement every morning at 9am reminding colleagues to look for their nearest fire exit. If you are worried about slips and trips, re-paint the handrails in a lurid colour.
Going from an empty to a full car park? Ensure the pedestrian route is highly visible. Worried about office security? Send out a checklist with the three most important things to remember and make sure the right people know how to issue temporary access passes and where to find the master key for lockers.
Finally, it’s worth recognising now that, however much time and thought you put into this, there are still too many unknowns for you to get everything right first time. So stay open-eyed, open-eared and open-minded to the office chatter, dynamics and behaviours and set some time aside in September and again in December to tweak your organisation’s or department’s approach.
Covid-19 and Working from Home Survey: Preliminary Findings (2021), Professors Phil Taylor, Dora Scholarios (University of Strathclyde) and Professor Debra Howcroft (University of Manchester).
Lizzie Broadbent is the founder of seen.heard, applying behavioural science in work with organisations to design effective programmes of change and build sustainable improvements in capability.