NEWS / ACE News / The great return to the office

ACE News

22 JUL 2021


How ACE’s members are adapting to the easing of restrictions as the pandemic enters a new and uncertain phase

Leaders from across the membership base recently shared how they were dealing with the return to the office, easing of lockdown and changing staff expectations.

Held in advance of the end of restrictions in England on 19 July, followed by similar moves expected in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, these sessions were a great opportunity for members to learn from each other in what is, after all, a completely new situation.

Darrell Matthews, director of membership and business engagement, said: “These discussions were very honest with members sharing their challenges and strategies. It’s clear there’s an incredible amount of care being put into these plans, with an obvious focus on the wellbeing of their people.”

Most were planning a hybrid solution, based on the fact that there are currently a range of attitudes to returning to the office with most companies working hard to accommodate these views, rather than impose a one-size-fits-all approach.

While some want to return as soon as possible to full-time office-based work, others are more cautious and uncertain, for example they are uncomfortable commuting via public transport or live with vulnerable family members. Some are completely fed up of having spent the last 12 months or more working at home, and others have relished the increased flexibility that this has brought to their work/life balance.

Members hope this slower, mixed approach will aid productivity, without forcing their people into any activities that they are uncomfortable with. There is a strong incentive to get this right – those who don’t may struggle to attract and retain talent going forward.

Changing expectations of office workers

The use of masks within the office was also discussed, with most asking that they were used when moving around the office, but not while at desks.

Others had introduced a voluntary policy to encourage members of staff to undertake regular lateral flow tests, others had opened up discussions on vaccinations. Both are not without potential complications and issues to be aware of. ACE has produced member-only guidance to help companies in these situations.

While more people may be in the same space, many companies are continuing with an “online-first” approach to meetings, not only to ensure those working remotely are not penalised, but also to keep meeting rooms closed until infection rates drop further.

Claire Clifford is director of people, skills and culture at ACE: “It’s clear that this is a new situation and managers will need to be wary of distance bias while ensuring that any approach is inclusive. Now is certainly not the time for presenteeism!”

On a practical level, some companies needed to give some attention to office layouts, previously set up for social distancing and hot-desking but required reconfiguration to welcome the return of some bulky desktop computers.

People development and recent joiners

There was some discussion around ensuring there are sufficient senior staff in the office at all times, to fast-track the development of younger engineers and apprentices. Many agreed that L&D had been neglected during the pandemic, but also that the informal learning gained by being in the same space had been lost.

Certainly everyone agreed that recent joiners, no matter the stage of their careers, had experienced the most difficulties in the pandemic and they would require more ongoing support than in pre-pandemic times, as well as eventual ways to facilitate their integration to the company and their teams on a social level.

Mixed approaches work best

There was widespread agreement that flexible approaches will work best. Darrell Matthews added: “Most companies are initially asking staff to attend two or three days a week. They are using  the upcoming holiday period as a ‘bedding in’ time to learn lessons and tweak approaches with a view to a fuller return to the office later in the year.”

Some have changed core work hours to allow for travel on public transport outside of peak hours to encourage more to consider coming to the office. There was also a strong level of support for staff that have to attend construction sites or other company premises and giving them the right to decline if they felt that COVID safety best-practice measures weren’t being totally adhered to.

There was also a recognition that some staff will have got used to working from home and will need allowances to transition back to travel and office life. One company is giving staff ‘time out’ on a weekly basis to attend to things at home that have become part of their recent routine - picking up deliveries or helping with the family routine.

Wisely, others have also planned for higher infection rates with the possibility that sick leave will increase as infections rise as society opens up and projects may be impacted.

Claire Clifford added: “I’m pleased to see a predominately cautious approach from our members. We need to be wary of ‘re-entry syndrome’ and the possible negative impacts on mental health.”

“Our Leadership in a Digital Age (LDA) masterclasses help members navigate this new, hybrid world of work, and provide business and HR leaders with practical tips and advice to make the most of remote working and management. I’d encourage all to attend of upcoming sessions in the autumn.”

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