Last reviewed 13 August 2020

Laura King considers how firms can manage a return to workplaces in a world that is still adjusting to Covid-19.

Usually, if implementing a change management programme, you might expect to start the process by identifying what needs to be improved and why, before presenting a solid business case to management. A plan would then be put together, consulted on and implemented.

Covid-19 has turned this process on its head, meaning that change has happened much faster than would normally be feasible. And while under more normal crises organisations might find that a return to “normal” can happen relatively quickly, it is clear that many of the previous ways of working are simply not viable — and may well not be viable for the foreseeable future.

Although current ways of working have enabled the business to continue during a time of unprecedented disruption, businesses now need to assess which of these changes are sustainable, and where further change is necessary. For many, this means some form of return to the workplace.

Why people need to be at the centre of change

The Government requires that organisations reopening workplaces only do so after a risk assessment has been put in place, with appropriate mitigating measures to ensure worker safety. However, although this step is critical, it is important to remember the adage: “Organisations do not change, people do”.

People have always needed to be at the centre of any change management; now, this is even more critical. Our world has demonstrably changed since we were at the workplace six months ago — and along with it, our perceptions, beliefs, fears and attitudes to what is acceptable and what is safe.

When looking at changing attitudes, safe spaces and behaviours are at the forefront of people’s minds. In its report, Preparing for the Return to Work Outside the Home, the TUC outlined results from a survey of 741 members of the public. Around a quarter were concerned that their employer would ask them back too soon, and 40% were worried to some degree about the return to work. Nearly 40% were concerned about the inability to socially distance from colleagues at work, and around a fifth were concerned about travelling on public transport (this concern rose significantly in London), workplace cleanliness and provision of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Managing change with people in mind

With continuing uncertainty, it is more important than ever for businesses to put in place robust and agile change management processes centring their staff. Below are some suggestions for ensuring any transition works for both the business and its employees.

Listen

Understanding staff concerns and collecting feedback on what is going well will help develop a plan that employees will be able to buy into. Remember that everyone will have had their own experience of the pandemic — while someone with a family might be finding it hard to balance work and childcare, an employee that lives on their own could be struggling with a lack of social contact. It might not be possible to accommodate everyone, but listening and supporting differing needs will give employees more confidence in the changes being asked of them.

Plan, but keep it flexible

Put in place an agile plan that can evolve and adapt. No one possesses a crystal ball but a strong roadmap that incorporates different scenarios and includes all stakeholders will build organisational resilience.

Consult on the plan

Once a plan has been adopted, distribute it for consultation. Be prepared to answer questions, as well as remaining open-minded to feedback. If good ideas are suggested, be prepared to make changes. Remember that many staff will be closer to the day-to-day operations than management; taking on board their views will help with staff engagement and make the plan operationally practical.

Have a central team that is cross-functional

Any change management team will need to include colleagues from across the organisation. A multi-stakeholder team will see the impact of change from different perspectives, allowing a clear and considered approach, strong governance and an ability to act decisively.

Give staff recognition

The first few months of transformation are when employees are most likely to resist change. Finding ways to celebrate small successes is one way of maintaining buy-in.

Communicate

Staff might be anxious about what steps are being put in place to help them return to work safely, or what is expected of them. To negate any confusion, a communication strategy should be in place to ensure that everyone is getting the information they need, when they need it. In general, communicating regularly and accurately will help the workforce navigate the period of change. Communication channels will also be needed for other stakeholders, such as customers.

Evaluate the plan and measure success

Setting measurable goals and objectives for any ongoing change management will be fundamental. Some ways of doing this might be by conducting pulse surveys or reviewing how staff are adopting new technologies.

Using technology to provide reassurance

There are an increasing number of tools that are available to ease the transition back to the workplace. Many of these technologies can be used to reassure staff that the office is a safe place to be. It is likely that solutions will evolve over time, but currently, options include the following.

  1. Better use of data. For example, online platforms that can show employees where occupation levels are high in a building. Workplace management software can also be used to help staff manage their return to an office, eg by booking a desk in advance. Such technologies give employees control and flexibility over their work environment, and will also help in other areas too, eg by enabling facilities teams to identify requirements for cleaning.

  2. Contactless technology. For example, contactless vending or access controls that allow staff to enter the building or purchase items using equipment that is personal to them.

  3. Near-miss reporting. There are lots of technologies already used for accident reporting. Ranging from virtual assistants which log information to reporting forms on the intranet, many of these methods could be adapted to help report issues with workplace Covid-19 protection measures as well as Covid-related near-misses (eg if PPE becomes compromised).

  4. Contact tracing and health checks. Some companies are considering the use of technologies that allow staff to self-report symptoms, as well as using technology to support their own versions of contact tracing. Although using these technologies can help manage any potential outbreaks of Covid-19, they need to be carefully considered, especially with regards to data protection.

Conclusion

Over the past few months, businesses have faced significant disruption and many have made significant overhauls to their methods of working and business models. As the pandemic continues to evolve and companies assess the sustainability of their current ways of working, further change is likely. When looking to manage a return to the workplace, firms should assess the attitudes and concerns of staff as part of any changes made.