Welcome to part one of our Workplace Wellbeing and HR Department collaboration where we are discussing returning to work after lockdown.

I am joined by Sarah Bradley of The HR Department who helps small businesses manage their people from recruitment, right through to retirement and everything that goes on in between.

In our first chat, we have also invited Debbie Binnersley of ARC Virtual PA Services, a working mum of two who works from home helping business owners with admin and business support, to discuss the government’s roadmap for lifting COVID restrictions and the effect on parents and businesses.

Do we think the lifting of restrictions and returning to work will go smoothly?

S:         It’s not going to go smoothly. Even before the kids went back to school, one of my colleagues already had a notification that a school seems to have new COVID cases with a teacher which delayed the pupils return. So good start. Businesses need to start planning. They need to speak to their staff, find out what each individual circumstances are, as not all school kids are going back at the same time and also what will happen if there is the need for isolation. So communication, communication is always the key and really working out where each individual situation lies.

D:        At the minute, I’m still a little bit apprehensive because schools are still going to have issues, it’s not like COVID have suddenly disappeared. There are going to be staffing issues with both COVID and the guidance for vulnerable and shielding teachers as well as pregnant teachers, who can’t work in the school environment from 28 weeks. We only went back on 8th March and already both of my children have been advised to isolate for 10 days each due to positive cases in their respective year groups. And then the Easter holidays are coming up as well. From a well-being perspective, the constant change in routines is almost as bad as them not being in school.

J:         Yeah, there’s just so many parts to it aren’t there. But as you say it affects the children’s wellbeing too as they’ve had such a long time off. It’s going be so different for everyone, isn’t it?

If these issues had occurred outside of a global pandemic, there would be a lot of difficult conversations being had, wouldn’t there?

S:         Yes, it’s a strange world for HR advice and helping businesses because, quite frankly, in a normal environment, if some of the issues that have cropped up and the amount of time that people have had to take off, in any ordinary year prior to this, there would have been some serious conversations going on with them right now. But this has been a completely different scenario that’s needed. You know, businesses don’t run effectively if we just concentrate on what the letter of the law says. And that’s where the HR side comes in, as well. And having to think about the bigger picture. And this is still the challenge going forward. So typically, employees should turn up to work and they should turn up to work wherever the employer says. But right now, we need a little bit more flexibility than that still to get businesses run in and work in. And its cooperation on both sides and a parent’s cooperate as well as the business needs to cooperate.

J:         Yeah, I think I think there’s going to be a lot more communication between parents, employees and employers altogether now in this world, isn’t there. Because we’ve all got to be a bit more flexible.

D:        I think from a parent’s point of view, and I know myself working from home, it’s been completely all over the place and things have been up and down. I think one thing that employers may need to take into consideration is that just because schools are going back, it doesn’t mean that everything’s magically going to go back to normal. Parents could have some anxieties about the kids going back to school but going to the children could be anxious about going back to school, which obviously, is going to affect people as a parent, which then if they are going back into the office, cause effects like the timekeeping a little bit, and various things like that. So it’s kind of being aware of that side of things as well, in that it’s not back to how it straight away.

J:         And then what about if you’ve got children and different ages and so on at primary schools and secondary school? You know that’s a different scenario as well to manage, isn’t it?

D:        Yeah, especially because a lot of the secondary schools now are doing the lateral flow testing.

We’re talking about kids returning to school, but a hot topic right now is managing the employees returning to work. How do we think will go?

J:         I mean, it’s all mixed up isn’t it because you’ve got the parent who knows, that if there’s a positive test in their child’s bubble, they’ve got to be off again.

S:         We’re going to be stopping and starting for a while at the moment. Again, as I said earlier, there’s been so much flexibility this year, because in the last 12 months, and we wouldn’t normally just give the right for somebody to have time off randomly as frequently as what’s been required. And I wonder what impact it will have on things changing going forward? And will any of us ever go to work with a sniffle anymore?

J:         Yeah, maybe that’ll stop.

So have you got any words of wisdom, Sarah, on what steps parents or just employees, in general, need to take if they can’t go back for any reason?

S:         I’ve already said it. And I’ve said it so many times to businesses this past year. I mean, in the very beginning of COVID, people would say to me, well, we’re all going through this together. Well, we’re not that changed. The first day that people heard about the first-ever lockdown, everybody’s in the same position. But from that point forward, individual circumstances need to be considered. And everybody’s situation is different. And the change is different, and the experience is different. It’s just all about communicating and understanding each employee’s individual needs. At the end of the day, the business still needs to think about keeping that business functioning for the sake of all its employees. So, keep talking to avoid difficult conversations because if we don’t talk in the very beginning, that’s often where things can ultimately end up in a difficult conversation situation. We need to start now to ease back on some of the legislation flexibility that’s been applied and let the businesses start to really try and grow themselves back into a really good place again that’s going to need a lot of give and take on both sides still going forward.

What are your opinions on enforcing staff back into the office now if you think they’ve kind of been dragging their feet a little bit at home? Can you make people come back to the office?

J:         No. There are some people who you can’t necessarily expect to go back such as those that have got a long-term health condition that will make them more at risk if they do go back and mixing with other people if they’re still shielding, for example. Those members of staff they should be allowed to continue working from home but obviously, there are a lot of those staff that are in jobs where you can’t physically work from home so again as Sarah said it’s a lot of negotiating, talking and being honest and open about your circumstances.

S:         For me, I agree with Jane, it’s about the individual and their circumstances and the thoughts that we had there for a second, but we have to just listen to the people at the moment and we still don’t know do we. Once government say those that are vulnerable don’t need to shield anymore, our business would have every right to expect that person to return to the workplace at very short notice. You know there are no legal requirements over notice to be given. I spoke to a client recently about this and I said you know they will have made childcare arrangements based on people being at home and things like that so let’s give them a week or so before the date we expect them to return, a couple of weeks notice and then that week it’s time to start talking to people about what their circumstances are. There will be requests for flexible working from home and there are far more processes to follow for those who do, as well as consideration as to whether it’ll work or not. I think we will see a lot more flexibility in workforces going forward but I’ve heard so many people say a little bit of time in the office of the quite nice actually. We are humans, we do like to mix with other humans and there’s going to be a right real mix of people yearning to get back and others that are quite happy to stay at home.

J:         For those worried about going back it’ll be similar to what you said about the children Debbie, it will be them adjusting to being with people again because they have been isolated for so long and many want to get back to people but they’ll just be nervous about it.

Still concerned about handling employees returning to work?

The key point, as we have mentioned, is communication. If you are an employee and are concerned in any way about returning to work then the first thing to do is to speak with your employer.

If you’re an employer who needs advice on transitioning your staff back smoothing into the office, then you can contact me or Sarah (0113 223 4993 sarah.bradley@hrdept.co.uk)