28/05/2021 – Are you returning to the office?
Yep, we are too – soon. And when myHRdept return to the office we’ll be thinking about the practical ramifications.
This article is a summary of the key points of our considerations, for more detail you might like to read our LinkedIn article: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/we-ready-return-normality-bill-larke/. You may also look at .gov’s advice on providing a safe workplace: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/working-safely-during-coronavirus-covid-19.
Covid safety aside, what are employers thinking about?
- Is an office really necessary?
- Will everyone return?
- What if staff don’t want to return?
- What about childcare?
- Will there be an element of homeworking still for some people (or everyone)?
- What should our position be on vaccinations and testing?
- For those who continue homeworking, are there any safety or data concerns?
- Can we insist that everyone returns full-time to the office?
- Should we offer staggered start/finish times?
- Do we need to alter employment contracts for new working arrangements?
I’ll address these questions from a personal viewpoint concerning our own business, but I know that many of our clients (whether they be businesses or charities,) are thinking the same way. The answers below are our answers then, but we’re also working through these issues with our client’s particular needs, as all organisations will differ.
To provide some context for our decisions it might be useful to describe myHRdept. Our professional services HR outsourcing business has been in existence in its current form since 2010. There are 12 of us and we are recruiting for a 13th member of the team. The team is pretty stable, we may grow by another person or so by the end of the year. We have an office in Maidenhead that seats 12 when full. The answers below are based on that scenario – If we were a start-up or an equity/debt-fuelled rapid growth business I’m sure some of the answers would be different.
Is an office really necessary?
They’re expensive, require environmentally-unfriendly travel to and from, and are usually costly to run, so why bother? For us, the answer is ‘yes’ we need an office. myHRdept has an ‘apprenticeship culture’ – people learn from the experience of others, and so personal contact and the ability to listen in to others dealing with client HR issues is very important. This is particularly so for new starters who are adapting from in-house HR to advising clients on HR issues in a commercial solutions-driven capacity.
Will everyone return?
Those involved in operational matters, by which we mean client HR work, will need to return to some extent (because of the apprenticeship culture I mentioned, and because team problem solving is often required), but for supporting functions (largely finance and commercial, carried out by the business owners) a return to the office is not so critical. Some face time for the whole team is important though and some discipline will be needed (planned meetings etc.) to ensure we meet that objective. Our thinking is that we will have around half the team in the office at any one time, but we believe it’s important that the whole team meet in the office periodically.
What if staff don’t want to return?
We’ll try and take account of individual preferences and if there are particular reasons why a particular person wants to spend more or less time in the office, we’ll take account of that. We’ll be particularly sensitive to nervousness from anyone who could not be vaccinated for health reasons or anyone who is critically clinically vulnerable. We’ll be talking to anyone in that category to understand their concerns and will review those in the light of the data available, including with the help of our occupational health advisory team if we think that would be helpful. (This service is available to myHRdept’s clients too.) We think that gentle encouragement and reassurance for the covid-nervous is a better approach than ordering a return. The office habit, like riding a bicycle, will gradually become normal again.
What about childcare?
Our rule before the pandemic was that homeworking is not conducive to caring for children, and the normal expectation if a child can’t attend nursery etc. (and no one else can care for the child) is that the day to be taken as holiday or unpaid leave. Obviously, we’ve had to relax that during the pandemic, but we’ll remind the team that this is the rule for future homeworking – staff are expected to be working, not looking after children.
Will there be an element of homeworking still for some people (or everyone)?
Probably. Most of the team have said they’d like to spend some time in the office and some working from home. The balance will need to be more office than home for newer starters, and we will expect staff to be flexible to make sure that client visits, etc. can be accommodated – we must be able to change homeworking days at short notice. Given that childcare arrangements need to be in place for homeworking staff, this shouldn’t be a problem.
We think it’s important not to forget that homeworking has worked reasonably effectively during lockdown – there’s no reason why it can’t be just as effective after lockdown. One of the issues we have experienced is a lack of visibility of what homeworkers are doing at a point in time. That can lead to problems when client tasks are allocated to people we didn’t know were already busy. We need to get better at understanding real time staff utilisation.
What should our position be on vaccinations and testing?
We will be encouraging all staff to be vaccinated and will ask staff whether they have been. We believe it’s necessary to know that in order to be able to organise our operations to take account of non-vaccinated people – for their own safety. If any have not been vaccinated, we’ll be talking to them about the reasons. If a team member chooses not to be vaccinated (a ‘refusenik’) and, as a result, impacts others adversely, we will have a problem we will have to try and solve, hopefully by agreement with the individual. If a team member can’t have a vaccination, that’s a different matter.
Either way though, we’ll need to recognise that non-vaccinated staff will be more vulnerable while Covid is still a risk, and we will need to consider the adjustments we might have to make to accommodate them safely. Obvious things that spring to mind are office attendance and client meetings. In theory, one refusenik in a team of 12 might require the other 11 to engage in regular testing, and that might be a problem.
For those who continue homeworking, are there any safety or data concerns?
Yes, and we need to revisit our data protection rules and check that people are following them. Staff should not, for example, be storing work on their laptop C drives – all work should be saved to our central system via our secure VPN. We will audit PCs to make sure that our data security procedures are being adhered to. We also need to remind staff as the weather warms up not to leave equipment in a vulnerable place, near open windows, etc.
I’m less concerned about the physical safety aspect because we completed a home working risk assessment a few months ago. We need to revisit that from time to time though.
Can we insist that everyone returns full-time to the office?
Yes, as contractually nearly everyone is required to work from the office. We intend to maintain that contractual position and will ensure that any homeworking arrangements are made clear to be non-contractual variations that may be brought to an end at our discretion. We don’t foreseeably intend to insist that everyone returns to the office full time, but we need to reserve that right for the future.
Should we offer staggered start/finish times?
While Covid-19 remains a threat, yes. Our staff don’t travel in by public transport, but a 9am start time for all will still result in huddles around the kettle, coat stands, etc. It makes sense to agree staggered start and finish times as a temporary measure. City organisations have a wider societal responsibility not to be emptying their entire workforce into the transport system at the same time.
Do we need to alter employment contracts for new working arrangements?
Not necessarily alter contracts, but a side letter to staff temporarily varying the terms of contracts and setting out the new rules would be a good idea. This will help communicate adjustments to staff, and would be useful in reminding people that this is a temporary change to terms and conditions, not a permanent one. I expect we’ll be writing quite a few of those letters for our clients!