Since coronavirus restrictions were lifted on 19 July 2021, thousands of people in the UK have been returning to their offices and places of work after over a year of being encouraged to work from home if possible.
Though this date was dubbed ‘freedom day’ by many, it came with plenty of warnings from Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his team, who encouraged “caution and restraint” as opposed to the day of celebration and revelry that many anticipated.
Far from descending as one upon office spaces across the UK, workers have been encouraged to make the transition slowly, thanks to rising cases and uncertainty around variants, giving employees and employers time to adjust and make changes safely. Instructions to work from home “where possible” have given way to ‘permission’ for individual companies and organisations to take matters into their own hands, and decide what they wish to expect from their employees over the coming months.
We’ve explored flexible working, and the appetite for a hybrid future – combining the benefits of working remotely with the advantages of office culture – in a previous blog post. Now we’re facing the very real prospect of setting foot back into workspaces that are simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, we need to consider how this might make us feel, what we have learned during our time away, and how we can make this process easier and more comfortable for everyone.
First things first: it won’t be the same, and we have to accept that. Many of us may be imagining working hours identical to the ones we experienced pre-March 2020. The likelihood is that the days of casually leaning over desks to chat to colleagues, gathering in stand-ups or tight-knit team huddles, or mass group coffee trips to tiny, crowded kitchens are over. While requirements for social distancing and mask-wearing have technically been lifted, many employers may continue to ask teams to adhere to some limitations, and any number of our colleagues may wish to impose personal boundaries.
It’s safe to say we’ve all learnt a lot since being out of the office – about both ourselves and how we can make our office spaces and working processes much more inclusive. This ‘return to work’ message is a great opportunity for us to continue those practices, and be more sensitive to others’ needs and our own, in a new normal for office life.
Here are some of our favourite tips to make the transition back into office life as stress-free, inclusive and comfortable as possible for yourself, and your employees.
Make mental health a priority
Many have struggled with mental health issues throughout the pandemic. In fact, the past year of lockdowns and restrictions has apparently worsened mental health by 8.1% on average. We have all been living through a period of massive change, experiencing trauma, grief, fear, and uncertainty. It is going to take a long time for us to recover from this, and assess the long-term impact of the pandemic on our mental well-being. On top of being understanding and considerate, you could help by providing effective support, both informal and formal, for your teams and colleagues, and beat the taboo by encouraging a culture of openness and acceptance. There’s plenty more to be done.
Adapt the office
Office spaces may well change to accommodate new ways of working. Some employers are choosing to continue encouraging social distancing practices, or adapting to flexible working, by reducing the number of desks in open-plan offices. While these redesigns and rearrangements are taking place, it’s a great time to reassess how accessible your office space is for all colleagues and visitors. Take a moment to ensure your new layout or plan is wheelchair friendly and takes into account the needs of employees and colleagues with disabilities or extra needs.
Change our approach to sick days
Pre-Covid, it might have been normal to encounter a colleague or two battling through the day with a cold or illness. Now we are much more aware of the spread of colds and viruses, it’s important we minimise risk – especially since Covid seems to be here to stay. Perhaps consider wearing a mask if you are feeling under the weather, to protect others, especially those who are more vulnerable; better yet, if you are unwell but feel you can continue to work, it could be best to work from home.
Continue empathising with home life
How many of your online meetings have been gatecrashed by a curious toddler? Have you received emails from teammates explaining that they will need to be offline because childcare has fallen through? How about all the times you’ve had teammates working around noisy home repairs, lack of internet, or flexible hours to fit in various appointments?
At the peak of working from home, most of us experienced a blurring between home and work life, which is inevitable when you work in, say, your living room. If your team is moving forward flexibly, this is unlikely to change. It’s important that we continue being sympathetic, understanding and accommodating as much as possible when these challenges rear their heads.
Every company will approach things differently when it comes to post-covid working life. If your office is doing away with masks and social distancing altogether, there may be colleagues who wish to maintain certain boundaries for their safety or peace of mind – particularly if they are still unvaccinated, vulnerable, or living with others who need extra protection. We must respect the boundaries of others without question or confrontation – both in and out of the office.
Accept that fear and anxiety is normal
While many are excited to get back into the office, there are plenty of others who are experiencing anxiety or fear about this change – and some may even be feeling a combination of the two.
This is not weak, nor is it unprofessional. If you, your colleagues or your employees are feeling anxious, it may be a good idea to voice this with your manager or team; you may find others feel the same, and you will be able to support each other. It will also enable others to help you through the change.
Flexible working is a huge perk of working from home. Working flexibly, and managing work around your personal, home and family life, can have a hugely positive impact on your wellbeing and mental health. Where possible, continuing to work your hours around commitments and even social activities – when it doesn’t impact your team or performance – could mean you’re more productive and enjoy a better work/life balance. Embracing flexibility more permanently would also ensure your office environment is more inclusive and equal for all.
Of course, it’s also down to the employer to keep their community safe too. If or when an increase in cases happens, it’s important to encourage safe working practices on top of the above. This might include reducing the number of visitors to the office, dedicating specific areas for large meetings, keeping the office well ventilated, enhancing cleaning standards, encouraging hygiene practices, rearranging desks to reduce face-to-face working, and encouraging regular testing among the team. There are plenty of ways colleagues can keep themselves, and others, safe well into the future.
Not only this, but putting practices like this in place can help teams feel confident, comfortable, and less anxious about working in the office again after so long.