April 21, 2021
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Returning to the office - 10 considerations for office owners
Bringing your employees back into the office is likely to prompt a mixture of feelings: joy at being together again, excitement about future projects and anxiety about your responsibility to keep your people safe.
 
There is a huge amount to think about, not least how the change will impact your risk profile and commercial insurance needs. Let’s look at some of the key considerations that will shape the coming months.

 
  1. When does the law allow you to reopen the workplace?

Coronavirus restrictions in England should be relaxed enough by 21 June to allow offices to reopen – the other nations of the UK are following similar guidelines (see the Scottish plan, the Welsh plan and the plan of the Northern Ireland Executive). If there are any major outbreaks or problems with the vaccination programme, this date may be delayed.
 
The Prime Minister has said that home working practices should ‘continue wherever possible’ until social distancing measures are scrapped on 17 May (at the earliest) or when all restrictions are lifted around 20 June.
 
The lifting of the pandemic restrictions will occur in a four-stage process, with each phase subject to four conditions:
 
  1. The vaccine deployment programme continues successfully
  2. Evidence shows vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths in those vaccinated
  3. Infection rates don’t risk a surge in hospitalisations which would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS
  4. The assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new variants of concern

Of course, you may have some employees who have been attending the workplace throughout the pandemic because their roles were incompatible with home working. Others will have been on furlough, and some will have been managing their roles while working from home.

The exact schedule is not clear, but hopefully by this summer we should be able to dust off the desks and get back to our offices.
 
  1. Do you want to return to the old normal?

Before planning your full return to the office, it’s worth questioning whether that is the right strategy for your business. The move to remote working has forced businesses to find ways to make this work for employees, and many will be reluctant to return to daily commutes and traffic jams.
 
A recent YouGov survey found that many workers want to continue working from home. Pre-pandemic, 68% of British workers never worked from home, 13% did so the whole time and 19% split their work between home and the office.
 
Now, as the pandemic restrictions lift, 39% of workers want to return to the office, 39% want to split their time between home and office and 18% would rather work from home all the time.
 
People who never worked from home before the pandemic have overwhelmingly been persuaded that it is a good way to work – 91% of those who never worked from home before want to spend at least part of their working hours at home. It’s a good idea to survey your employees and find out where people want to work in the future.
 A busy office with workers sitting at their desks and moving around
  1. Homeworking has had a major impact on mental health

A survey by the Royal Society for Public Health found that the majority of people who began working from home during the pandemic say the practice has had a negative impact on their mental health. More than half (56%) of those who started remote working in the pandemic said they found it harder to switch off after work, while 38% said they experienced disturbed sleep.
 
Workers said that remote working made them feel less connected to their colleagues. The issues were worse where workers lacked a desk space within the home – one in four (26%) of remote workers do so from a sofa or bedroom, with only 15% working at a desk.
 
People living in shared accommodation reported the worst impact on health and wellbeing, while women experienced more isolation and musculoskeletal problems than men.
 
Employers have not been stepping up to the challenge of supporting workers with mental health issues. Only 34% of respondents said their employer offered mental health support.
 
Some of your workers may have gone through bereavement during lockdown or experienced the serious illness of someone close to them, often in very difficult conditions where they are unable to visit the sick person or attend a funeral. It is important to remember that along with the discussion of lockdown hobbies and boredom, some workers will have had much more harrowing experiences.
 
  1. How will home working impact recruitment?

Some companies are opting to embrace remote working as their default mode, allowing employees to work from home indefinitely. Tech giants such as Twitter, Facebook, Google and Spotify have taken this approach.
 
If all your workers do so from home and rarely meet, it doesn’t really matter where their home is. This frees up workers from the constraint of having to live within commuting distance of their work, which could have wide-ranging impacts on how we live and work.
 
For example, your next vacancy could attract applicants from people across the country, or even in countries overseas. This opens up the talent pool for your opportunities, but it also means your employees could start looking elsewhere too – competition for the best candidates could be thrown open to a much larger field. This makes it all the more important to be sensitive and responsive to employee needs in order to retain your best workers.
 
  1. How do you ensure workplace safety?

The pandemic is not over. Risk management measures will need to be in place for your employees on their return to work. Ensure you are up to date on the latest government guidance as to whether social distancing measures remain in place when your workers come back.
 
A full risk assessment will be required to open up your offices, both to address COVID-related issues and to manage any factors arising from the premises being closed for an extended period.
 
You should consider issues such as hygiene and handwashing, routine cleaning, ventilation and air conditioning, and caring for vulnerable workers in your assessment. You should always understand what health and safety obligations apply within the terms and conditions of your commercial insurance.
An empty desk in an office
  1. Should you phase the return to work?

A strategic approach to bringing employees back to the workplace is likely to ensure the process is as smooth as possible. For example, you might choose to return particular teams first, or individuals who have experienced greater challenges with working from home.
 
Communication is essential to keep your staff on board while you go through the process of opening up. Employees will want to know how they will be protected from infection within the workplace and ideally, you would have mutual agreement with employees about when and how they return.
 
A phased return will help you to identify problems early and mitigate any difficulties you encounter along the way. A CIPD survey found that 45% of workers say they have anxiety about returning to the workplace. It is worth remembering that it is not only the working environment that can be a cause for concern. Over one third (35%) of workers are anxious about restarting their former commute.
 
  1. How can you best support employees?

One of the most important ways you can support workers is through being clear and open with them. There should be regular communication about the process for re-opening the workplace, steps you are taking to manage risk, and what they can do if they need additional support.
 
If you are continuing to allow remote working while some employees return to the office, you should have a system in place to ensure that all workers are as productive and engaged as possible. You might need to make greater use of online collaborative working tools, or use technology in a different way to help manage projects.
 
Setting expectations of what you want employees to achieve should be part of your overall strategy, helping to ensure that work is shared evenly between those working at home and those in the office. This should include responsibility for routine tasks but also ways of sharing opportunities for growth, advancement and development.
 
In the early days, it’s wise to expect some teething problems and possible reduced productivity as everyone learns how to carry out their jobs under different circumstances. This is particularly important where employees are grieving or have had especially difficult experiences during the pandemic, for example financial difficulties because a family member was unable to work.
 
  1. Considering the diverse needs of your workforce

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on diversity and inclusion in the workplace. The closure of schools and childcare meant an increased burden of caring responsibilities within the home, with women taking up this additional work more than men.
 
One third of UK mothers say they lost work or had to cut hours during the pandemic due to a lack of childcare. Many are worried about the impact on their career prospects. For Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) mothers the problem was worse; almost half (44%) reported cutting their hours.
 
The pandemic has also had a disproportionately negative impact on LGBTQ+ workers, who say they feel increasingly isolated from colleagues and fear that career progress could be impeded as a result.
 
People from poorer backgrounds, which includes many people in the BAME community, have also experienced additional hardship in the pandemic due to cramped living conditions. Communities living in densely-populated areas and smaller homes will have experienced lockdown in a very different way to colleagues with large homes and surrounding countryside.
 
The good news is that many employers are thinking about diversity. Almost two thirds (65%) told a CIPD survey that inclusion was a high priority for them, compared to 37% before the pandemic. More than two thirds (77%) now put employee health and wellbeing in their top three priority issues.
 
Your managers might need additional support from HR to enable them to address inclusion and diversity issues as workers return to the workplace, or if they begin to manage hybrid home-working/office-working teams.
A woman wearing a medical mask
  1. Be prepared but optimistic

The pandemic has been hard for all of us, but it’s also taught us some valuable lessons about ourselves. You might have noticed hidden talents in your employees during the pandemic, or found new ways of working that improve productivity and cut waste. Alternatively, you might have identified new markets or developed niche products to target our changing circumstances.
 
There has been plenty of doom and gloom around COVID-19 but it will certainly end one day, and when it does you want your business to be resilient, confident and forward-looking. Now is a good time to capture some of the lessons you learned so you are ready for any future crisis that might come your way.
 
For instance, you might want to look at your disaster plan in the event that your workplace has to be closed at short notice in future.
 
  1. How will the return to the workplace impact your commercial insurance?

As part of your preparation for re-opening the office, you should think through how the transition will impact your commercial insurance needs. You might need to adjust your policy if you are going to be bringing equipment such as laptops back into the office environment, for example, or if you will have a reduced workforce on your premises.
 
If you will be operating on a hybrid blend of remote working and office working, this also needs careful consideration from a commercial insurance point of view. There should be written policies covering things such as storing business equipment, health and safety expectations, data confidentiality and how performance will be managed.
 
You should be absolutely clear about what items are covered on your commercial insurance and what is excluded. If your employees are using a laptop to work from home, you should understand which policy would cover it in the event of a burglary, and what the ramifications could be for your data security.
 
Why not get in touch with Insurance Choice for a commercial insurance quote today?

Policy benefits, features and discounts offered may very between insurance schemes or cover selected and are subject to underwriting criteria. Information contained within this article is accurate at the time of publishing but may be subject to change.
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