Back to the workplace

Nino Di Vito, Partner & EY EMEIA People Advisory Services Innovation and Technology Leader, discusses managing evolving uncertainty

A successful return to the workplace is the priority for employers right now. As lockdowns begin to lift for different groups of workers across the world, it’s anything but business as usual.

It’s important to remember that a post-lockdown return to the workplace isn’t an event, it’s a process. It is estimated that 2.7 billion people, 80% of the global workforce, have been affected by COVID-19-related lockdowns. Their safe return is a complex challenge that employers around the world are facing.

In addressing this challenge, there are three key areas to focus on that will drive progress in the transition back to work: health and safety, technology, and physical space.

Health and safety first

In times of crisis, people want to know they matter, and they are being looked after. Health and well-being should be front and centre in a company’s response and recovery from COVID-19.

Employees need to feel confident their safety is protected at work. Employers need to clearly demonstrate the protective measures being taken to safeguard staff and clearly communicate them. Candidates will also want to hear about these measures. Recruiters should be able to outline these at a high level and advise employers to be ready to speak to the detail.

Companies implementing the transition of large-scale workforces back to physical environments are already planning waves of return, each in limited numbers, to preserve social distancing. Leaders must decide who needs to go back to the workplace as a priority and are innovating with staggered shifts, alternating teams on a rota basis, and experimenting with longer-term remote working arrangements for some.

Employers will also have to navigate regulations that govern the safe return to work in addition to putting practices in place that help keep employees safe. These measures include staggered start and finish times to minimise commuter congestion as well as “bunching” at entry points; temperature testing; frequent handwashing regimens and sanitiser availability; deep-cleaning protocols, especially for high-touch surfaces; personal protective equipment where mandated by governments; and on-demand health care and access to telehealth support.

A new, collective focus on hygiene has accelerated the use of touchless systems and voice-activated controls. The strong emphasis on washing hands and cleaning surfaces is now so engrained in our daily routines, it’s hard to believe these measures won’t last.

These personal safety practices and formalised measures are illustrative of a newly formed culture of care, one which will start to inform everything a company does both in the workplace and extending beyond, taking into account how workers and customers get safely to and from physical locations.

Transition: the role of technology

Due to the lockdown measures, many members of the workforce have been catapulted into the use of videoconferencing software, cloud-enabled file-sharing, and other collaboration tools to enable them to work remotely. Though they were sudden, these new ways of working have frequently proved efficient and productive, allowing them to become embedded into regular business practice.

The pandemic has accelerated organisations’ plans to modernise their ways of working and take advantage of automation to reduce the costs and improve the quality of a number of jobs being done by humans today.  This allows organisations to reimagine those areas where digital workers can effectively play a role enabling the human workers to focus on more creative and rewarding tasks.

As companies compete for talent, more flexible ways of working that leverage the latest workplace technologies can improve work/life balance and meet employees’ and key candidates’ preferences.  The investments some organisations are making in these technologies and new ways of working should make them stand out to candidates as the employers of the future, creating the environment and enabling the experiences that will not only develop the workers of the future but will also enable their workers to be more relevant in the job market and achieve more in their roles.  These are important considerations for employers and candidates alike.

Technology can also help as businesses face difficult decisions on how to conduct a safe return to the workplace. The transition process can be improved by using digital platforms that offer guidance and information from reputable sources, such as the World Health Organization and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, along with the capabilities to manage and monitor COVID-19 health and safety risks in the workplace.

The use of such a platform allows a business to monitor worker and customer health, build organisational resilience, engender trust with workers and customers and plan for recovery beyond COVID-19.

Physical space

Following lockdown, every business will need to reconfigure its workspaces to maintain social distancing. Measures include orienting employees back-to-back or side-by-side; employing designated seating rather than “hot desking”; limited use of lifts; one-way systems, installing signage to help maintain distance at communal facilities such as photocopiers, coffee areas and bathrooms; and temporarily closing social hubs such as canteens.

With these changes to workspaces, companies are also re-evaluating their real estate needs, including who needs to be in the office and for what percentage of the working week. Employers will need to keep their options open.  They will want workers that are happy to work from home but also happy to come into physical locations, either at employer or customer sites when needed and as social distancing requirements become more relaxed.  There is no doubt that the pandemic will have a significant impact on world economies and on customer buying patterns.  Employers will need workers to be flexible enough to change their working patterns as customer needs evolve over the coming months and years.

As companies look at a flexible workforce, there may also be an increase in work done by contractors, or gig workers, that sit outside the organisation. However, the pandemic has shown contractors to be particularly vulnerable, and there may be moves to offer them employment safeguards and benefits similar to internal employees in the future.

Where work does need a fixed physical location, companies will focus on making this location more flexible (for example, through modular office space) and adaptable to new production processes and new technologies. The interrelatedness of physical location and technology will only increase with technology enabling effective remote working for many more jobs much more than it has done to date.

Meeting needs longer term

As we begin to emerge out of lockdown, recruitment and business leaders must rethink the environment in which their companies operate. Succeeding in this uncertain period requires building trust during the transition back to work, whether that is to physical or remote working environments. Longer term, the aim must be how to transform for the better, creating a sense of belonging and effective team working in situations where teams are both partially physically co-located and partially virtual.  This process moves from focusing on risks to realising opportunities.

Looking longer term, some questions to ask when reimagining the future of work within your company include:

  • Do your workplace environment and work-from-home policies reflect employee preference, choice and a new workforce model?
  • How will you address employees’ chronic and acute well-being issues (physical, financial, social and emotional) in transformation plans?
  • How will you use technology to augment people, collaboration, learning and new ways of work?
  • How will technology, whilst keeping people at the centre, reshape the value the company delivers to the public by creating local jobs and skills?
  • How will organisations look after their workers from a professional and career development standpoint through a time of significant change and upheaval for them?

In the transition back to the workplace and beyond, remember it is your people that sit at the centre of all change. How companies switch the lights back on in their operations has the ability to create a new culture of care and confidence that will have far-reaching effects long after the pandemic has stopped being an immediate threat.

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