Returning to the office – let’s keep each other in mind

Hillier Hopkins LLP

Chartered Accountants & Tax Advisers

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The summer holidays are over and the Covid restrictions are lifting. There is a general feeling that from September more and more people will begin to return to the workplace.

Flexible or hybrid working, particularly in office-based roles, will be the new normal. For many of us, that will involve two or three days a week in the office and the remaining time working from home.

Yet with many of us being out of the physical office for most of the past year there are a few things we should all keep in mind. We will need to learn new ways to operate and be mindful of how our actions and conversations might affect colleagues.

Employers first and foremost will need to remember that they have a legal responsibility for the health, safety and well-being of their staff, and that might present challenges and potential points of conflict.

Whilst the wearing of face-coverings is, for example, no longer a legal requirement, many employers still require staff to wear them, particularly if in public facing roles. How will employers respond to staff if they repeatedly choose to no longer wear a face mask. Employers are also likely to face challenging situations for those individuals who choose not to be vaccinated unless they have solid medical reasons.

Employers will also need to take considerable care in avoiding potential discrimination claims from staff that choose to work from home yet feel that are overlooked for new projects or promotion whilst at the same time avoiding the unwelcome return of presenteeism.

Just as businesses in March 2020 needed to respond quickly to a wholesale shift in working patterns, so too will they need to respond again to the new working environment with both hard and soft measures.

Here are a few things employers and their staff returning to the office might wish to keep in mind:

  • Zoom and Teams calls. Conversations can easily be overheard by colleagues and clients, particularly in open plan offices. Consider designating a quiet corner or separate room for online meetings. Create a corporate branded background image for use on calls or ask staff to select the blurred background option when making video calls. This will help provide privacy for colleagues and reduce distractions for those on the call. It is a good idea to develop a Video Call Policy document to help guide your team on the use of these tools.
  • Employers will not want to see empty offices on a Monday or a Friday. Agree a staff or team rota to ensure the office is staffed throughout the week.
  • Employers should keep in mind that many of their staff may not been in an office at all for over a year. Clear communications to support this transition will be critical.
  • Social anxiety is a very real prospect for many people, particularly those living alone or in small family groups. Colleagues may wish to shake hands or even hug friends in the workplace they have not seen for quite some time. Business owners should keep this in mind, perhaps reviewing staff policies, and consider how they can support staff.
  • Commuter anxiety. Staff, particularly on our larger cities, will be reliant on public transport to commute to and from work. Be sensitive to any concerns or anxiety surrounding public transport and by being surrounded by many different people. Employers may want to consider staggered working hours to avoid busy commuting times.
  • Employers have always had to accommodate parents with young children but will need to be more aware of how Covid can leave parents having to make changes to their working patterns, often at short notice.
  • There will be many new faces in the office with staff joining during the past year. Employers may want to revisit induction programmes that reflect the fact new staff may have been working for the business for many months but have yet to meet colleagues.

Employers are advised to make sure they comply with all relevant employment laws with their legal advisers.