Top tips for employers to ensure a safe and sustainable return to work

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Top tips for employers to ensure a safe and sustainable return to work

As lockdowns continue to ease around the globe, so the tentative return to work begins, leaving employers understandably concerned about the safety of their workplace.

In this guest blog, The Planet Mark have outlined some considerations, tools, and technologies discussed with other organisations in their latest webinar to help ensure that your employees’ return to work is not only safe but also sustainable.

At Digital Detox, we are still operating on a remote-first model of working, whilst making sure our company culture begins with trust and giving our team the autonomy to manage their own work schedules in the way that suits them best.

Lead with empathy

COVID-19 has made unequivocally clear how interconnected the world is, and the unfolding pandemic has shone a light on the domino effect that is activated when one element in this interconnected system is damaged. This crisis has taught us that we can’t go it alone in trying to solve difficult problems. It calls on all of us to come together with compassion and humility.

Management teams have a responsibility to bear in mind that while all their employees have experienced this crisis, they have not all experienced it the same way. Some employees may have conditions that increase their risk and therefore may be reluctant to return to the office. Sensitivity to this reality is integral.

It is also important to recognise that employees may need time to reacclimatise - for office workers conditioned to working from home, or employees previously on furlough, returning to the office may seem a daunting prospect. In order to alleviate these concerns, management should make sure employees understand what’s being asked of them and provide flexible solutions to those that may be reluctant to return to an office environment.

“Common sense, empathy and respect are PPE measures of a different kind. A lot of people are concerned about coming back to work as they are worried about how their colleagues will behave. Respect is vitally important.” Claire Elliot, Technical Design Director, Oktra

Put safety first

The health and safety of your employees should take precedence as organisations consider how to bring operations back to some semblance of normal, or new normal. From a business standpoint, safeguarding employees’ well-being is paramount because no plan to return to office-based operations can be successful without them.

“The first thing is to understand the latest government guidelines and then mirror that in your offices. At Commercial, we have removed some desks to comply with distancing. We also utilise smart technology to track where everybody has been to allow for contact tracing if cases arise.” Simone Hindmarch, Co-Founder and Managing Director, Commercial Group

Establish guidelines for the use of PPE in the office, such as the mandatory wearing of gloves, checking employees and visitors before entering the office, and outlining rules determining when employees can return to the workplace after recovering from infection. Considering the ubiquity of mobile phones, it may be wise to utilise apps to enable contact tracing and communicating with employees who may need to self-isolate.

Rethink capacity to prioritise physical distancing

As is the case with sustainability initiatives, ensuring employee buy-in is key to implementing a safe and efficient workspace. Ask for your employees’ input in helping frame what a safe and welcoming working environment looks like. People do not want to return to a clinical environment, they want to come back to a considered, well-communicated workspace. Including them in the process of developing this is essential. Review floor plans and the specific needs of workers to use the particular space; identify if the workspace needs to be rearranged in any way. Seating can be assigned to accommodate the latest government recommendations for safe physical distancing, whilst incorporating employee inputs.

“When Covid-19 hit, to prepare the workspace we had to prepare the people. We sent out a survey to our employees to ensure our sentiments were in line with government guidelines and employee considerations. We had previously designed the office in Christmas time, but we stopped and adapted to suit the results of our survey. So, our people formed what our office now looks like and how it operates.” Claire Elliot, Technical Design Director, Oktra

Communicate effectively and consistently

Ahead of returning the employees to the office, determine what employee communications should take place, how regularly, and how they will be disseminated. Outline what is being done to address workplace hygiene, what the shared responsibilities are in ensuring compliance, and the procedures for reporting concerns or questions. Position clear, visually appealing signage around the workspace and utilise technologies such as Microsoft Teams to share key messaging. By enabling genuine, two-way communication, organisations have an opportunity to turn the COVID-19 crisis into an opportunity to reinforce corporate culture, increase employee engagement and boost morale in the long run.

“We have grown through utilising online technologies such as Teams to communicate. I have a call every morning with the leadership team of around 16-30 people. They are then able to share knowledge with their specific teams. It is about training the trainer, so that every employee receives key messaging clearly.” Simone Hindmarch, Co-Founder and Managing Director, Commercial Group

Utilise technology to increase agility

If there is one business lesson as we emerge from lockdown, it is how alarmingly vulnerable our pre-Covid-19 business models were to such eventualities. Working remotely has provided a crash course in leveraging virtual tools and platforms like Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Consider how you can continue using some of those technologies as we return to the office. Participate in conferences online to reduce your travel related emissions or share handouts digitally rather than printing them off to save paper.

“Businesses need to learn from the rapid changes of the past few months and break out of outdated ways of thinking. We must not fall into the trap of underestimating how much you can achieve online; we have transitioned to online communication on a global scale. You can have the same conversations as you would face to face, it just takes some adjustment.” Matthew Marks, Compliance and Sustainability Manager, Pallite

Maintaining a sustainable consciousness

COVID-19 may represent something of a generational opportunity to re-assess the way that operate as individuals and organisations. As companies around the globe fight to maintain their footing in a Covid-19 world, the pandemic has provided a window into what the ongoing sustainability revolution might look like in the future.

It has not only raised the stakes for sustainability but also highlighted the actions that are noticed in the face of corporate responsibility - the company contributing to philanthropic causes in response to the crisis, or the CEO slashing their wage to keep hold of employees. Covid-19 has shown that anticipating risk is not enough. After this, leaders will not be forgiven for underpreparing for various global issues such as the climate crisis.

  • Enhance employee wellness: As individuals around the world continue to consider hygiene and social distancing, they become increasingly attuned to their own health and wellness. Employers also have the responsibility to support and promote health and wellness. Encourage or incentivise employees to walk, run or cycle to work or provide access to employee engagement platforms, such as Perkbox.

  • Consider implementing flexible working permanently: Allowing employees to work remotely is not only beneficial to their mental wellbeing but virtual meetings are also reducing travel related emissions, with satellite images evidencing the dramatic declines in air pollution around the globe.

  • Engage with Nature: As our time outdoors became increasingly restricted, many of us began to appreciate how energising and restorative it can be to spend time in nature. Consider incorporating some of that revitalising outdoor time into daily operations within the office. Alternatively, green your workspace by positioning office plants in place of removed desks or chairs.