We’ll have to accept a level of risk to get back to the workplace


Successfully inviting employees back to the workplace means establishing strictly observed precautionary measures, assessing and communicating risk and emphasising the positive benefits of the workplace, writes Henry Lee.

As we get close to the end of lockdown, much attention is being devoted to bringing the workforce back to the office safely and productively. Businesses are desperate to get up and running again and will be very keen to avoid employee relations issues and tribunals, yet many employees will be anxious about the return: some will have known people who have died or become severely ill and others may have been bereaved or themselves hospitalised.

How do you motivate and encourage productivity in a workforce ruled by fear?

Firstly it is HR’s responsibility to understand the problem, look at it dispassionately and make an assessment based on the data. There must be recognition that it’s difficult to motivate people who are fearful; employees will have to be supported to overcome their anxieties through assistance and evidence-based structures establishing the low level of risk they are being subjected to.

Motivation to undertake any activity is when the reward outweighs the risk. HR should help staff understand the risks better by educating them, helping people feel comfortable and happier to return to work.

Risks are everywhere and they need to be assessed. Employers must decide whether that is a risk they are prepared to take. They should recognise that many people have pastimes that have levels of risk they are comfortable with: skiing or hiking, for example. Most of us are aware that doing anything involves a level of risk.

How do you bring your staff back to work safely?

Here, it is important to follow government guidelines and make the office as safe as possible through establishing policies. It may be best to over protect. Enforce social distancing at desks, introduce staggered work patterns, introduce a rule that face masks should be worn in the office, and set up alcohol gel cleaning stations as staff come in.

Higher risk individuals should be asked to continue working from home. Staff should be educated to help them best mitigate the risks to themselves and others in the workplace.

Work can add a great routine to a day and a social environment, so many people should hopefully look positively on their impending return. Potentially look at bringing individuals back to the office on a part-time basis, so that there is more space for social distancing. Look to allow heavily staggered working hours to again keep density low.

If there needs to be a large number of invasive policy measures in place, it must be asked whether they make the office a more productive environment than working from home.

Every business needs to look at this individually, but if an employer is not following the guidelines above and puts staff members at an unnecessary risk, it leaves itself open to litigation. Is it worth it for sometimes minimal increases in productivity and the benefits of face-to-face contact?

How do you treat staff equally if some are scared to return and some are not?

As a business you leave yourself open to issues if you discriminate toward individuals in a workplace. Asking some individuals to come back to work before others dramatically increases their risk of catching the disease. Why should they take the risk over others?

Incentivising could be an option. Some people might feel the risk is acceptable, but why would they put themselves at risk with no reward? Offering staff an increased wage in return for a waiver to the business for the risks from the disease, as long as all health and safety measures implemented by the business are appropriate and fully met, could be an option. Each individual has a different perception of personal risk and what is acceptable to them.

Asking some individuals to come back to work before others dramatically increases their risk of catching the disease. Why should they take the risk over others?”

Making a blanket decision could cause extreme stress, anxiety and ultimately lead to increased sickness of some staff. The virus poses different levels of risk for different people, so you would have to make an assessment on each individual. If you have the capability for staff to work at home but you ask them to attend the workplace, you  are directly asking them to take a risk and that holds some liability.

In this situation, making recommendations rather than rules is safer for businesses. Employees could be allowed to return in their own time. Offering support throughout will demonstrate the business has done all it could to support the transition back to work for everyone and hopefully help mitigate litigation.

Individuals need to understand their own level of risk on the basis of their age and health vulnerabilities. Employers should offer the choice for individuals to come back to work when government guidelines suggest it’s OK to do so, with a hard end date to work towards, such as the end of 2020. This option has already happened at Google and Facebook. Higher risk individuals should be encouraged to continue to work from home, but also allowed to come to the office should they wish, the risks having been spelt out.

Finally, businesses should look at offering wider support to those who have mental health issues arising out of situations brought on by the pandemic. By doing the above we should be able to get 50-60% of the workforce back into the office safely and in the shortest amount of time, hopefully to kickstart 2020 again.

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