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The next step in the easing of restrictions across the UK is billed for 21 June and employers are readying themselves to manage the return to work for those employees who want to go back in to the office.

According to the Health Secretary Matt Hancock, the vaccine has “severed but not broken” the link between the number of infections and hospitalisations, so the government continues to urge caution.

As employers work on defining the level at which they want to return to the office, we outline the importance of treating employees as individuals and actively listening to how comfortable they feel returning at this stage.

Employees as individuals

As businesses open up, many people will be waiting to hear when they are expected back into the office. For some, this will be the first time they have been in the office and around their teams for over a year, if they have been working from home since March 2020. Bupa have produced tips for employees to manage any back-to-work anxiety they may be experiencing. From being worried about the continued risks of the virus to being uneasy mixing with people in the office and on the commute, line managers must manage the planned return with a focus on the individual.

This may be further complicated by Long Covid which has a range of symptoms and presents very differently in people. When it comes to treatment and assistance, a “one-size-fits-all approach simply won’t address the very personal nature of the illness” according to Managing Director Christine Husbands of RedArc Nurses. Early intervention can make a huge difference to recovery and support needs to be tailored accordingly for each employee.

Employer brand

The focus on wellbeing ramped up last year in an unprecedented way. Not only were priorities re-assessed, with many people set to adopt new patterns of work, but the conversation around rounded employee wellbeing became more widespread.

As the pandemic unfolded, there was an impetus on strong communications from senior leadership to not only keep customers updated on organisational responses, but also employees. The focus on wellbeing ramped up last year in an unprecedented way. Not only were priorities re-assessed, with many people set to adopt new patterns of work, but the conversation around rounded employee wellbeing became more widespread. The continued importance of a clear communication strategy to drive employee engagement is crucial, particularly for around half the population who continue to work remotely.

Organisations’ employer brands have been defined by their response to the pandemic. A renewed focus on their wellbeing strategy has been a key focus of organisations who have had to redesign reward strategies to accommodate remote workers. More employers have been reporting an annual review of their benefits and many have been investigating various accreditations, such as investors in people which focuses on leadership and wellbeing. Especially during the first lockdown, in our HR Groups, many organisations reported that they had received the highest levels of employee engagement reported in pulse surveys.

Mental health

The question of mental wellbeing is increasingly being linked to a return to the office. In addition to concerns employees may have about returning, there is also the risk of creating a division in the workforce if employees are given more autonomy over where they work and when. Employers are grappling with how to translate the level of flexibility employees have enjoyed at home into a workable solution for when people can return to the office. Whilst Google have announced that 20 per cent of their workforce will remain remote and flexibility is key, others are more reluctant and have voiced concerns over the long-term impact on the culture of their business. Meanwhile, Apple employees have written to CEO Tim Cook making the case for not returning to the office.

Whilst the balancing act of having employees in and out of the office is being termed ‘hybrid working’, this is a generic term for the varying levels of flexibility that will ultimately be defined by individual organisations. What is undeniable is the lasting impact on our collective ways of working and the digital transformation driven by the pandemic. Many are talking about portals for staff to socialise online and determine their wellbeing packages, trying to counteract the risk inherent in remote workforces.

Actively listening to employees

The long-term impact in certain sectors, particularly those on the frontline of the pandemic, may be seen further down the line.

Varying working arrangements will rely on open communication and monitoring when they come into practice as the world reopens. Continuing to be available 24/7 with the merging of office and home spaces may risk burnout over a longer period of time for some, whilst for others it may be an opportunity to balance careers and childcare. The flip side of this is the wider talent pools that flexible working opens up for organisations willing to embrace an almost digital workforce. The impact on mental health will undoubtedly vary even within organisations, meaning employee feedback on how they are finding their working arrangements needs to be continually factored in.

The long-term impact in certain sectors, particularly those on the frontline of the pandemic, may be seen further down the line. With incremental pay rises despite national recognition and appreciation of the NHS’ role in the pandemic, employers fear that the impact on employee turnover is still to be felt in this sector. Combined with the skills shortages operating across the country, organisations are having to look beyond competitive pay and tackle the wellbeing support they offer for each individual when it comes to retaining top talent.

Financial wellbeing

As the UK emerges from restrictions, it is clear that a holistic review of employee wellbeing is required. With one in three organisations accelerating their financial wellbeing plans, this is crucial for certain sectors where the long-term impact and stress of particular roles are driving people out of certain professions. The Royal College of Nursing forecasts that one third of nurses are considering leaving the profession. Healthcare companies are also reporting that they are struggling to compete with NHS pay levels, particularly in relation to the pension levels on offer. Private healthcare companies report that they are focusing on benefits and holiday allowances to compete.

Pay levels also look constrained in the private sector. Whilst public sector pay rises continued during 2020 in the private sector, the immediate uncertainty caused many to lose their jobs or have their pay frozen. Supporting employees’ financial wellbeing is a priority for many who have either been furloughed or actually experienced a pay cut given that the Retail Price Index inflation is 2.5 per cent – above the average 2 per cent pay rise projected in 2021 by respondent employers to our UK Reward Management Survey autumn 2020. We also captured the highest levels of pay freezes since the 2008 recession, with 24 per cent of respondents reporting that these were in operation before the third national lockdown across the UK.

Get in touch

When it comes to setting the right level of benefits and access to wellbeing support across your organisation, how are you balancing the packages available for those working from home and those who plan to return to the office? Call us to talk through how you’re approaching the easing of lockdown and your proposed plans for returning to the office.

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