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HR and the return to the office – May coffee mornings

​Throughout May, Investigo hosted a series of HR networking events to discuss new ways of working and the process for returning to the workplace. Hosted by Richard Grove, Head of Public Sector HR in our Public Sector team, the event brought together senior HR professionals from across our network to share lessons, advice and insight. Used almost unanimously as our attendees described the last couple of months was the word “busy.” Whether it’s been involvement in the furlough process or communicating with the workforce, HR has certainly not ground to a halt.

Planning the return

Companies are at varying stages of their return to work plans, with many coming out of crisis management mode and starting to think about business continuity. Investigo recently asked its employees to complete a return to work survey, which will help to inform the transition and give our people the chance to shape their future workplace. Investigo is an organisation where most roles can be done from home and the company has invested heavily in technology over the last few months.

“Mental health will be more at the forefront when people go back to work,” said Sarah House-Barklie, Head of Culture and Talent and Investigo. “There are a lot of complicated dynamics we could be up against – people having separation anxiety from their children, for example. We’re doing surveys and going through a detailed debate to see how we can support people. If we listen to our people now, we can use this as an attraction tool for the future.”

“One thing that’s resonated with us is that Investigo had us all involved from the start,” said Richard. “It made us all feel like we’ve got a voice.” However, with the government easing lockdown restrictions and public transport starting to open up, there’s a danger that some companies will ask their employees to come back to work without thinking properly about the challenges. For many people, this is a hugely intimidating prospect.

Others have had to be at the workplace due to the nature of their organisation. As Assistant Director of HR Operations at the Hillingdon Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Kathy Clark has been at work throughout the crisis, which hasn’t always been the most comfortable experience in an environment where “some workspaces are too small.”

Frontline service continuity at ODS Group has been difficult with engineers unable to go into people’s homes to carry out repairs, but they “have reopened construction sites in the last couple of weeks, upped services that can be done outside,” said Anne-Marie Scott, Director of HR and OD. “Nothing else has changed. At the corporate level, we’re carrying out a service-based risk assessment on things like cleansing stations, enhanced PPE requirements. We’ve reinforced what we’ve been doing through lockdown. If you can work from home, continue to do so. We’re delivering chairs and screens to help with that.”

“It’s not been business as usual,” said Kathy. “We’ve redistributed staff who worked in outpatients, rheumatology or orthopaedics, where we’ve temporarily closed down services and put everyone into the COVID response. The entire NHS has had to shift. There’s been the beginning of a discussion about returning to normal. We’re thinking about trying to harness the rapid changes we’ve made and how we can work differently.” This could include outpatient appointments by Microsoft Teams, Skype or phone, and marking green and red zones in hospitals to indicate whether they’re treating COVID-19 patients. “We’re also talking about how to deliver services across geographical areas rather than trust by trust,” said Kathy. “It’s a massive undertaking to go to a new normal. There’s an ongoing requirement for a COVID response, but we have to start reopening NHS services.”

The University of East London is in the early stages of the return to work. “We’re not expecting students back on campus until early September,” said Linda Litherland, Staff Development Manager.

“We have run scenarios – business as normal, phased starts, virtual working – and we’re starting to look at risk assessment. How do we deal with people wanting to work from home now? Do we need to spend money kitting them out?”

New ways of working for a new place of work

“We don’t want to go back to the way it used to be,” said Kathy. As a champion for flexible working, Kathy has never understood companies’ scepticism about working from home. “The reality is that people are more productive as they’re not arriving having done a commute or a school run. We need to harness that productivity and share the benefits. It’s different for us as we have frontline workers who cannot work from home and there’s still a perception that people working from home have got it easy. My teams have kept services running a lot longer while working from home. Being able to see my child and manage nursery days has had a positive impact on my work-life balance and mental wellbeing.”

“We haven’t cracked it,” said Stephen Phillpott, Head of People Services at Tower Hamlets Homes. “I was surprised by how many people didn’t have laptops or broadband. We need to keep supporting staff from a mental health point of view. I’ve got staff saying they’re working from their bed or on the dining room table, with kids running around.” Accordingly, Tower Hamlets Homes will be asking how they can help their staff for a longer period now.

“I don’t think we’ll ever get to a situation where we go back to where we were. Homeworking will be a standard, even default option.”

The staff at Aster Group were already used to remote working – “but it’s not all been an easy ride,” said Jane Pound, People Director. “We need mobility when out in the field, but there’s been resistance from some to having that level of flexibility. We overcame that in the first few days as we followed the government instructions. Within 48 hours, anyone not set up for regularly home working suddenly became so. There was some contact centre resistance due to trust and cultural issues. We’ve run surveys to help us look after people’s wellbeing. But if this is now a new permanent or semi-permanent, I don’t think we should rest on our laurels. There’s more to do on accepted ways of working and the reestablishment of boundaries.”

“We’ll see organisations change their policies around flexible working over the next six months,” said Richard. “Everyone has realised they can work remotely and if they give their staff responsibility and let them work in their own way, they’ll still get results.”

Marshah Dixon-Terry, Interim HR Project Consultant at Homes England, felt it has long been time to consider different and creative ways to design and deliver L&OD offerings virtually. Homes England is “looking at different ways of working, harnessing what’s been good over the last few months,” she said. Across its 1,100 people, from lawyers to construction workers, these messages are being well received.

“We’re a provider of social and community housing, so we’re a very long term business,” said Jane. There’s a unique pressure on the company to deal with the crisis while carrying on with the longer term work, as well as restarting conversations about programmes and projects. “People are naturally focused on the immediate crisis. They might say how can we talk about things in five to 10 years’ time when this is going on?”

The situation has been similarly complex for Sharon Ault, Interim Executive Director of People at Greenfields Community Housing, which is due to complete a merger with Colne Housing Association on 1st July 2020. Of course, two different companies have two different ways of approaching the crisis. Greenfields has given out laptops to many of its employees, which hasn’t been the case at Colne. “We’re just about to refurbish the office,” said Sharon. “Will we need a bigger building?” On the other hand, remote working will present an outstanding opportunity to employees of the merged organisations: “We have an incredible platform for agile working. I could only have dreamed about that from an agile point of view, even when it was in the plans.” Richard added, “This has forced us to go agile and a lot of organisations will have to change the way they’re set up. It’s a good chance to do something different.”

It’s an unfortunate fact that any new ways of working will have to factor in our response to the virus. Steve raised the very valid question of what organisations are doing about contacts and tracing. “Strategically, as well as dealing with the incident, we’re starting to think about what our employer brand will be like,” he said. Herts Urgent Care has started to look at keeping a central record of contact and tracing. “We were concerned that the first people getting the virus at our call centre would wipe out the call centre’s ability,” said Melinda Lord, Senior HR Consultant. “We were already keeping our own records. It’s how we manage this and isolate the right people. We’re now looking at people as a family unit and how we look to safeguard the group as opposed to the individual person.”

“Agile working was already on the agenda, but now it’s been pushed up the priority list,” said Donovan Chapman, Interim HR Consultant at London South Bank University. The university is looking at a phased return with strict social distancing. Staff have the facilities to work from home and this capability has been accompanied by a culture shift.

Having dealt with the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has had experience of dealing with an incredibly difficult situation and an insight into working together very quickly. “We’ve still got frontline people out there,” said Pauline Shakespeare, HR and OD Business Partner.

“They’ve been redeployed to deal with vulnerable people in the community. IT is a core part of that.”

Tracy Wright, Head of HR at the Guinness Partnership, has observed that “Taking care of people remotely has become a bit of a challenge. We’ve been dropped in this situation. We’re very conscious that it won’t be something for the short term, it will be something for the long term. A lot of what we can do as leaders is to embrace the fact that this is going to stay, not how we return to the previous normal, as I just don’t think that will happen. It won’t be an easy ride for anyone, whether in leadership or on the front line.”

Reluctant returners

A key part of any organisation’s return to work will be gaining an understanding of how its people feel. There will be those who are ready to go back to the workplace and those who are understandably very nervous about getting on public transport or being around large groups of people in the office.

“In the last few weeks, I’ve found people have been contacting me saying they’re scared to come back,” said Pauline. “What about transport? What will it be like in the office? How will we be separated? Even if we say everything’s in place, people will still be very reluctant. All these things need to be in the plan. It’s an opportunity to look at our physical space. Do we need that much space? Do we need everyone in the office? In transformation, we should not have hard lines about what we think we should do. Out of tragedy, it’s the opportunity to look at things holistically and how we can do things better.”

“Do they have to go back at all?” said Peter Harrington, Interim Director of People and OD at the

University of Suffolk. “Do we have to take an individual view on what’s right for these people? It’s a good opportunity to build our employer brand a bit more, to apply common sense instead of the government saying we have to go back in, so let’s go back in. That would be going back to where we were before. Let’s use this as an opportunity to transform our business.”

Also forced into significant changes in its everyday practices, the University of the Arts London has managed to continue operations since the start of the crisis. “When the crisis hit us, we moved a lot of things online and are supporting students and staff online, so we don’t see the need to rush back to the way we used to do things,” said Andrea Lechner, Head of HR Advisory Services. “We’re not returning over the summer months. Our students in halls of residents can stay until they’re ready to leave.”

She added: “The important thing for us is wellbeing, finding ways of supporting staff who have been furloughed, starting to look at what we will do in bringing people back. I don’t think a large number of staff will be physically returning to campus in the next few weeks. We’ll be doing it gradually and maintaining distances. We’ve delayed the start of the academic year by three weeks, which gives us more time to put systems in place and reassure people it’s safe to come back. Senior managers can see the business of the university is continuing. There are some individual hurdles to overcome, but the university in general has not fallen over as people couldn’t turn up on a daily basis.”

Consultation crucial

Steve referred attendees to some useful recent CIPD guidance on how to ease employees back into the workplace. “Is it essential? Is it safe? Is it mutually agreed? Fit and healthy people might feel anxious about coming back to work due to concern about the virus or looking after vulnerable people. We have others who want to be back at work, maybe bored at home. It’s about balancing their physical and mental health. We might push them back into work when we shouldn’t be, or keep them at home when they want to be at work. We have to build trust in people and ease their anxiety. What can you do to support them in making the right decisions for them?”

The nature of people’s jobs will be just as important in these considerations. Bill Gregory, Interim ER/IR Transition Specialist, highlighted the important distinction between white collar staff working from home and blue collar staff who have either had to go to work in potentially dangerous circumstances or have been furloughed.

“This is where a good old fashioned risk assessment comes to the fore,” said Jane. “I have a workforce that can work from home. We’ve also got a significant frontline workforce going into people’s homes. We’ve given lots of early messaging that we’ll bring people back gradually, but they have individual circumstances and individual risks. We’ll be doing rolling risk assessments and having fairly personal conversations with employees all the way through.”

Illustrating the importance of clear communications, Investigo’s senior management team is making company-wide announcements to update its employees on the company’s plans. “Anyone just pinging out an email saying this is the way forward will see some real problems,” said Richard. At Homes England, there’s a big focus on wellbeing. “But wellbeing’s different for different people,” said Marshah. “For some it’s finance, for others it’s their children. The comms piece is important but the engagement piece is also important. Managers need to show leadership, giving examples on a regular basis, talking about culture.”


HR has for too long been seen as a largely administrative function. But in what has been an incredibly difficult time for businesses of all shapes and sizes, HR departments now have the real opportunity not only to support their colleagues’ health and wellbeing, but also to define company policy in a very different working world. It’s during times of crisis that the human connection becomes more important than ever – and in a crisis that has removed that connection in a physical sense, HR can provide that crucial link to strengthen organisations for the challenges ahead.