How are we going to manage the transition and ‘return to work’

By Peter Cheese, CEO at the CIPD.

As attention and government guidance everywhere shifts to the next phase of the crisis and lock down restrictions begin to ease, how we approach a return to places of work is looking significantly more challenging than the original lock down.  

For lock down, organisations had to act quickly and move as much of their workforce to home working as possible. They had to support them technically and logistically, take care of basic physical wellbeing and working practices, and as has been increasingly recognised, support their mental wellbeing. Once at home, obligations to maintain social distancing and hygiene safety, and concerns about who might be more vulnerable fell to each of us individuallyFor the key workers who remained in workplaces, their employers had to quickly work through how to keep them as safe as possible, provide PPE, or guidance on distancing with little beyond general guidelines. 

Returning to workplaces is a lot more complicated. There are almost endless options about how, when and who might return. There will be huge concerns about liabilities and rights, not least because a return to work shifts the obligations for limiting exposure and distancing and hygiene much more to the employer. For the employee, as we know from our most recent survey, many people have real concerns about their safety and those close to them. They are concerned not just about possible exposure in the workplace, but exposure in getting there. They will feel they have as a minimum a moral right to refuse to return with these concerns in their mind. 

From a practical perspective, it is impossible to write rules for every circumstance, and the sheer practicality of maintaining distancing or hygiene practices at any scale or for prolonged periods is hugely challenging.  Whatever physical mitigations are put in place, the required human behaviours are profoundly unnatural, and extremely hard to enforce as has already been shown through the lock down. The potential for emotional and legal conflict and stress are great, and it is vital for the preservation of trust, collaboration, and mental wellbeing that we avoid those outcomes.

Existing obligations of employers to look after their people and provide safe working environments still applies, as will related legislation for areas like discrimination and rights to privacy. And that is true also for employees in taking reasonable care and in adhering to guidance or policies. These should remain the basis of our legal context and understanding. Given that rules and guidance for workplace practices of the kind that Government is focused on for allowing some returns to workplaces cannot be ubiquitous, and are in reality not all readily manageable or enforceable, we need to be guided also by clear principles. 

The reality is that this crisis from the outset has been about humanity, and people and their wellbeing. The emphasis so many employers have therefore given to physical, emotional and mental wellbeing must remain the key principle. Employers must continue to communicate openly with employees and workers, to understand their concerns and perspectives. If it is not essential for work to happen in the workplace, then the default should remain for now to continue to work from home. For some they will want the opportunity to come back to a workplace as a respite from the constraints and stresses they have been challenged by at home, and for their mental wellbeing. We must listen to and empathise with individual concerns and recognise that almost every case and context will be different.  

Any returns therefore should be as gradual as is possible, and we will all need to learn and adapt as we go. Where jobs can only be done from a workplace and this is vital to sustaining the business, managers will have to discuss and seek to reassure, or compromise – and the same will be true for employees.  Bringing line managers on board, and possibly training them more, will be an essential element to supporting returns to workplaces in the short and long term. Flexibility, fairness, openness and collaboration will be critical principles in ensuring trust is maintained. 

Policies and employment terms and conditions will also need consideration. Hours and schedules of work, or balancing of work and job roles may need adjusting given the expected gradual pick up of work across most sectors of the economy. Hence our calls for more flexible furloughing arrangements that recognise this, but individual cases and contracts and agreements of employment will have to be recognised and may need to be adjusted as well.  

So many of these issues lie at the heart of management practice and employee relations. They are not all legally bounded and never can be. But the guidance from government is lacking in so much of this, and judgement from financial, legal, ethical and basic compassion perspectives will be required on all sides. Organisations should expect more scrutiny and should be as transparent and open about what they are doing as possible. This will also guide the right actions and behaviours. Reputation, brand, and trust are all on the line. 

We are all on a long and winding road. This next phase will again test and challenge us all. We have to go gradually and learn as we go, and be led by good principles and evidence of what is working. No matter how much some may want to prescribe, or others seek prescription, there is no one size fits all and we must all apply judgement and tolerance. The alternative is likely to be recrimination, great damage to working cultures, employment relations and trust, and a mountain of legal work.  

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