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By Phil Sproston, Country Manager UK & Ireland, Top Employers Institute
By Phil Sproston, Country Manager UK & Ireland, Top Employers Institute

The Return to the Workplace: Five New Challenges

The return to the workplace may be well underway, says Phil Sproston, Country Manager UK & Ireland, Top Employers Institute, but a host of new challenges have emerged for HR leaders. Earlier this month, a selection of HR leaders from the UK’s Top Employers met in the latest of our exclusive virtual discussion groups. The purpose was to share their experiences around the return to the workplace following the easing of the COVID-19 lockdown. As the discussion unfolded, several new challenges quickly emerged and these fell into five main areas….

1) How best to renew a sense of purpose within teams?

The return to “normality” is clearly only partial at best among many workforces. Some team members are returning to the workplace, some for part of the time, while others are continuing to work from home or remain on furlough. It is a challenge to maintain a sense of purpose within teams and organisations that are never or rarely going to be together for some time to come. The phrase “New Normal” was quickly discarded by our HR leaders, as it does little to help organisations move forward in a very different world. Instead, one Top Employer has moved on to frame the current period as one of “New Beginnings”, a recognition that while much has changed, the new future may have new and positive benefits, as well as challenges.

2) How to sustain improvements in communication?

Given the wholesale relocation of workforces everywhere, improved communication was a pre-requisite for an effective and engaged workforce during lockdown. Leaders in certified Top Employer organisations clearly stepped up their quantity and quality of communication, for example, with “town hall” meetings delivered in an open, transparent and informal manner. Technology also played a vital role, with online channels delivering meetings, new ways of working and portals full of COVID-19 pandemic information and reassurance. Great communication must now become the norm, rather than the product of exceptional circumstances. The major challenge now is to make sure that, with the current wave of the pandemic receding, leaders, managers and teams continue to meet the high communication standards they have set themselves.

3) How to balance new workplace flexibility with organisational needs?

Top Employers in the UK have shown remarkable flexibility to date in relocating and managing their employees through challenging times. They will need to continue to be every bit as flexible, particularly given the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19. In general, our certified Top Employers say that their managers have felt empowered to work with employees to accommodate individual circumstances. But the need for organisations to refocus on their own agenda is clearly an imperative and the pressure to reconcile organisation need with individual flexibility has intensified in recent weeks.

4) How to treat all employees with “parity”?

With employees in different locations and with differing employment circumstances, UK Top Employers have found that it has been a real challenge to create a renewed sense of “parity” within the workforce. Those who worked in a factory during the pandemic, for example, will have experienced different levels of risk to colleagues working at home. And while those working full-time to cover for absences may have felt overwhelmed by an increased workload, their furloughed colleagues will have felt insecure about whether they would return to the workplace at all. UK Top Employers are therefore working exceptionally hard to make sure that, in the words of one participant, everyone in the workforce feels they are “not only in the same storm, but also in the same boat”.

5) How to mitigate isolation for those who remain at home?

Many businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic have needed to trust their employees to work from home. Our UK Top Employers reported that this switch has been overwhelmingly successful and in many cases they are happy to let working from home continue. But the potential sense of isolation of those required to do so over the longer term will become a growing challenge. The prospect of an ongoing blurring between work and home boundaries means that UK Top Employers will be acutely aware of their moral responsibility to gauge employee wellbeing.

So much has changed in recent months for Top Employers in the UK and worldwide. And the only certainty is that as Summer turns to Autumn and then Winter there will be no shortage of new challenges lying in wait for HR leaders.