Return to work post-Covid – HR comms plan
With restrictions easing bit by bit over the coming months there are plenty of employers who will be looking to get their people back to work as soon as they can. But for many, this won’t be until restrictions are fully lifted, and thousands of employees will have spent around 16 months working from home by then. A return to the workplace will inevitably throw up all sorts of questions and concerns. How best should HR managers handle bringing people back to work post pandemic?
Ultimately, communication is key, but careful planning as to the what/how/when will make a real difference between just getting information across, and making sure your staff are engaged and content.
We take a look at some of the key issues HR teams will need to consider whilst navigating the return to work at the end of the pandemic.
What key information do HR managers need to communicate to employees?
- Work culture – for some employers the pandemic will see a move to flexible/hybrid working becoming permanent. For others, you’ve made do but it’s not how your business will operate at its best. However you choose to move forward, explain your intentions, and the rationale behind them, to your employees early on – before you’re inundated with flexible working requests.
- Practicalities – think about the practicalities for those coming back to the workplace. Will their passes still work? Are the same parking facilities available? Are desks still in the same place? You may have dealt with all of these things, but reassure employees about them to help ease any anxiety about their return.
- Changes – are you planning on making any changes? There are a multitude of changes organisations have made or are looking to implement as a result of the pandemic, from re-arranging the office set up, to re-organising the working week. Some of these changes seem so beneficial or minor that it’s almost an afterthought to communicate them to employees. Consider whether any changes impact contractual terms (if so, you may need to consult) but, even if they don’t, make sure to communicate them no matter how trivial they seem.
- Requirements – will employees need to do anything specific before they return? Are you implementing a requirement for vaccinations, for example? Do they need to bring equipment with them, or arrange for it to be collected/delivered to the office before their return?
- Benefits and support – don’t forget to point out all of the benefits to your employees of returning to work – the social aspect, having on hand IT support, even things like the access to free fruit in the office! Some employees will feel nervous about a return to the workplace and it’s important to remind everyone about what support is available to them. Do you have an Employee Assistance Programme? Will you facilitate group or 121 support networks? Think about the initiatives for supporting your workforce in their return and make sure they know what’s available to them.
- Covid – we all hope to one day hear the last of that word, but even once restrictions are fully lifted, and the majority of the population are vaccinated, there will still be covid concerns. Some employees might be worried about risks to themselves or loved ones (who may not be vaccinated, for any number of reasons). Some may even resist returning to work. Think about what you might want to say to pre-empt such concerns and provide reassurance. It will be a delicate message to communicate and the timing will be key too. This is a message probably best left until there is further clarity from the government as to the full lift of restrictions.
How is it best to communicate this?
Most of these messages represent important information, and it will be necessary to record them in writing. But that doesn’t mean you can’t also speak to employees, whether that’s on an individual basis, or in small or larger groups – and you really should.
The value of delivering this information in person (even if it is virtually) can’t be underestimated. Returning to the workplace after such a long time, following this (still surreal to many of us) pandemic, will be a very significant event. To just receive an email about it is bound to fall flat.
What are the most likely employee concerns and questions about the return to work?
Even with all of your careful planning and comms, you’re bound to face questions like:
I’ve been working from home effectively for months, why can’t I continue to do that?
Your messaging about work culture will be key to heading off and responding to these types of queries. Of course, if someone makes a formal flexible working request you’ll need to follow the specified procedure and will only be able to refuse their request for one or more of the 8 reasons set out in legislation (e.g. detrimental impact on quality). Bear in mind though that employees remain protected by discrimination laws, beyond the flexible working regime, and for those with 2 years’ service there is the potential risk for constructive dismissal claims. Consider carefully why employees working from home isn’t sustainable long term, and how you might be able to evidence that.
My costs will increase with a return to work, will the company help with that?
A November 2020 Bank of England survey reported that, on average, the majority of households increased their savings during the pandemic. With employees spending less money on fuel and public transport, their ability to save may take a hit once they return to work. An employee’s normal place of work will be as set out in the contract – working from home has been a temporary arrangement, imposed by government restrictions. Of course the employer isn’t compelled to mitigate this, nor is it justification to insist on continued home working – saving on some expenses has been a knock-on benefit for individuals.
My/my child/my family member’s health will be at risk if I return to the workplace.
This will be an inevitable but delicate situation to handle. Your response will in part be dependent on government guidance at the time. However, in theory, once all restrictions are lifted concerns about covid should be reduced to a minimum. It’s likely that, provided you’re compliant with government guidance, you’ve conducted appropriate risk assessments, and considered any specific adjustments on a case by case basis, it will be very difficult for employees to insist on staying away from the workplace.
What should HR managers consider in their internal communications strategy?
Method – Whilst we might be suffering from Zoom fatigue, delivering important messages about returning to the workplace by email risks being missed, or poorly received. Perhaps a video meeting will work well, a pre-recorded video message or maybe there’s an even more creative solution you can combine with written comms. Will your budget stretch to a full animation or mini-movie for example? Could you turn it into a team building event? Involve your marketing team and you might come up with some ideas which will really engage your workforce.
Timing – consider the particular piece of information you’re communicating, and when is best to talk about it. Your future work culture, for example, will be an important one to communicate early. Other matters, such as covid concerns, will need to wait until more information is available from the government.
Delivery – who is the best person or people to deliver the comms? Employees will always look to senior leadership for direction and messages delivered by the most senior people in your business are bound to have the greatest impact.
Engagement – for your employees to feel engaged, you need to involve them in the discussion. Think about carrying out surveys, setting up working groups or consulting with staff before you make decisions and communicate your approach. You can refer back to this when delivering information, which will help employees feel their voices have been heard.
Follow up – once you’ve completed all of the above it’s easy to feel satisfied with your ticked list and move onto your next project, but don’t waste that momentum. You’ve got employees feeling engaged, listened to and you’ve given them lots of information. Make sure you have a plan for follow up. Whether that’s managers following up with their teams to gather feedback, sending out surveys, inviting feedback in a specific way – whatever your method, employees will appreciate you involving them at every stage and it will provide you with an opportunity to get a heads up on any potential issues.