With the recent easing of lockdown restrictions, several businesses are asking some of their employees to return to the workplace when working from home is not a realistic option.  Whilst this is a reasonable ask, there will be some employees that are either reluctant or concerned about returning to the workplace.  To help with this, we have developed some tips to guide you through how you might approach this.

Step 1– Considerations prior to speaking with the employee

These circumstances are new to us all so, before speaking with the individual you may wish to reflect on whether there are any additional measures you can put in place ease someone’s concern’s about returning to the workplace:

  • Tip 1 – Review the reasons behind wanting the employee to return to the workplace.  Is it possible that the role can be done remotely (fully or partially)?
  • Tip 2 – Review the workplace safety measures you have put in place (social distancing, staggering working hours, cleaning, PPE etc).  Is there something that could/should be done that would increase confidence for those returning to the workplace?
  • Tip 3 – Consider other employees may be feeling the same but not voicing their concerns.

Step 2  – Having a meaningful conversation

Hold a virtual meeting or call with the individual to explore their concerns.  Each individual will have experienced lockdown differently so it is important to understand where their concerns are coming from:

  • Tip 1Starting the conversation, don’t jump straight in – By starting the conversation with a general check in, then outline the purpose of the call as well as let them know it is ok to be feeling anxious they are more likely to feel comfortable expressing their concerns and you are more likely to come up with a workable solution.
  • Tip 2 – Explore further than the initial response.  Whilst citing child care issues may be both true and a very real concern it may not be the underlying reason they are reluctant to return, including (but not limited to):
  • Concerns relating to commuting on public transport
  • Child care commitments
  • Mental health issues that have developed during lockdown
  • Grieving for a lost family member or friend
  • Safety in the work place (such as social distancing and PPE measures)
  • A need to shield (either for themselves or for others in their household)
  • Loss of confidence in capability due to a long absence away

You should also be prepared for non COVID-19 related concerns such as a break down in a working relationship prior to lockdown

  • Tip 3 – Be prepared that more than one meeting or call is needed.  Some individuals need time to reflect on what is really concerning them, solutions proposed or to come up with alternatives.  You may also need some time to rethink solutions so having a follow up meeting or call before finalising any agreement is often beneficial.  Also be prepared to break the potential solution down into smaller pieces and once they accept one, review and agree the next step.
  • Tip 4 – Ask them for solutions that could work.  As with any performance conversation, there is more buy-in from the employee if solutions are suggested by them.  If the suggestion is workable (even if not perfect) then it may be worth trying initially.

Step 3 – Possible solutions and reasonable adjustments

Whilst there are likely to be a number of options available and you should be guided by the employee, some of the below (in isolation or in combination) are a good place to start:

  • Phased return (using annual leave and reduced working hours)
  • Amending working patterns to avoid busy commuting times
  • Combining working remotely and being in the workplace
  • Increased frequency of wellbeing check ins
  • Phased introduction to tasks (starting with a lighter workload to ease the individual in gently)
  • Ensuring they work with the same person every time they are in the workplace (achieved by agreeing team splits or defining work areas to set individuals)

Step 4 – Follow up

Follow up any conversation in writing to summarise your understanding of the conversation and anything agreed (such as solutions and how/when this might be reviewed) is good practice and also gives the individual the opportunity to confirm or correct your account.  This method also has the additional advantage that, should you need to, you can refer to this summary in later conversations.

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