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The return to the workplace is at the top of mind for a lot of businesses. To talk about best practice for managing this period we were joined by Rachel Jones, Director of Talent, Learning, Engagement and Organisational Design at Sodexo, Sinead Casey, a partner at Linklaters, Andy Cox, Chair of Energy & Natural Resources at KPMG and Rain Newton-Smith, CBI Chief Economist.
Here’s what they spoke about:
- A phased return
- Listening and learning
- The future of company culture
- Legal aspects of the return.
A phased return
The switch to home working was fairly immediate for professional services firms like KPMG and Linklaters. The return will be much more gradual, however, as companies seek to manage the return to the workplace safely for employees and clients.
Andy explained that KPMG has put in place a three-phase plan for the return to the office. The first phase began earlier in July. “Business critical” employees were allowed to return to the office, but the office could only be filled up to 5% of normal capacity at any one time. Phase two is set to start early in August. From then, up to 20% of the workforce will be allowed to return to the office on a voluntary basis. The decision on when to commence phase three (allowing up to 50% of people back to the office) will depend on the government’s advice and the rate of infection in a few months' time.
Rain advised that a lot of businesses are taking a “cautious approach” to the restart, particularly in the context of second waves of infection arising in several European countries. As we head into the winter we may start seeing more “local lockdowns” she said. This will of course impact people’s ability to go into work.
Listening and learning
For Rachel Jones at Sodexo, the key to successfully managing the company’s workforce throughout the pandemic has been communication. The company has many workers in frontline services so a lot of employees have continued to attend their workplaces, while others in office-based functions have been working from home. Other employees have been shielding, placed on furlough or on sick leave, so the business has had to manage a variety of circumstances. “We’ve had every possible spectrum of what could happen within Sodexo as a business,” said Rachel. “Every day is a school day.”
Managing those different circumstances has meant consulting closely with employees to make sure they feel comfortable with their working arrangements. Or if they don’t feel safe, for Sodexo to understand why that is and to help make it better. “We’ve listened and we’ve communicated heavily with our people. We don’t pretend to know the answers,” she said.
Andy and Sinead likewise stressed the importance of employee engagement. Both businesses have conducted regular employee surveys throughout the lockdown period to assess people’s working from home arrangements and to understand how they would like to work in the future.
Sinead said that some Linklaters employees had expressed a wish to return to the office because their work from home situation was challenging due to inadequate space or privacy, for example. The company has opened up space in the office so that a small number of people can go into work safely. As things open up more, staff will be asked about how comfortable they feel returning to the office and how many days per week they might consider going back in.
At KPMG, 80% of staff have said that they are happy working from home and 70% have expressed interest in continued flexibility in their working arrangements. Even before Covid, KPMG was thinking about how the organisation could become more “agile”, said Andy. The company is “actively encouraging” flexible working practices, particularly for those with caring responsibilities.
Rain said that two key areas for companies to consider and discuss with employees would be childcare and transport. During the summer months, childcare facilities will not be fully operational which will make a full return challenging for working parents. Likewise, depending on their personal circumstances and sense of risk, some employees will be less comfortable travelling in to work on public transport.
The future of company culture
The “new normal” will likely involve a higher level of flexible working and working from home. But this can have a negative impact on collaboration between teams and creativity, said Rain.
Processes like hiring, onboarding and employee progression are also more difficult. Studies show that people who work from home are less likely to be promoted, according to Rain.
Rachel in particular was concerned about the impact of remote working on company culture. “What creates and drives culture and values and behaviour is sometimes the office environment,” she said. While it has been possible to maintain the company’s culture virtually during lockdown, moving more permanently to working from home could make it difficult to preserve.
Legal aspects of the return
A few attendees asked questions about the legal obligations of employers and employees for the return to the workplace. Some wanted to know what they can do if an employee refuses to come in to work and whether employees could be compelled by their employer to return.
Sinead’s advice was to “proceed with caution.” If an employee is refusing to return to work then it could be a disciplinary matter so long as the company is satisfied that they are providing a “safe working environment.” However, if the employee has “reasonable grounds” to refuse to return that would make the company’s insistence on a return to the workplace unreasonable then it’s a different matter.
She explained that under section 44 of the Employment Rights Act employees can be protected from “detriment or dismissal” if they refuse to work or leave work “in the reasonable belief that they're in imminent, and serious danger.” Under the current circumstances with Covid-19 it’s “highly likely” that employees could reasonably believe themselves to be under threat from the virus.
Again, Rachel stressed the importance of communication with staff to mitigate against these issues. If an employee is refusing to return to work, a good employer should listen to the employee to understand the reasons they feel uncomfortable doing so. The employer is then in a position to make arrangements and adjustments to help staff members feel safer returning to work.
Key questions we answered:
- Rachel, when bringing people back to work, what has worked well for Sodexo and what hasn’t?
- Conversation, flexibility and dialogue were essential to ensure our staff could continue to go into work in contexts such as prisons and hospitals.
- Some have been able to work from home, which is great. It has allowed us to be far more agile around the decisions the company makes.
- However, the demand isn’t there for some of our staff. So, we utilised the furlough scheme.
- We follow government instructions as our starting point. Our staff were consulted, and our clients’ views are key too. If they don’t want us on-site, then we will not go.
- We will not jeopardise the safety of our people.
- Andy, tell us about how things are working at KPMG?
- In March, prior to lockdown, we moved to home working. We were able ensure our entire workforce, both in the UK and globally, were working from home.
- Microsoft Teams was essential, as it ensured that we didn’t lose any productivity.
- Our people have been incredible.
- But there have been challenges along the way. Many of our people are in shared flats, and many have children and/or parents they need to care for.
- So we started to move to a phased return to the office pattern, following the government’s guidelines. The health and wellbeing of our people is paramount.
- Phase 1 (started 6 July) – up to 5% of our people were given the opportunity to come back, but only those for whom being in the office was business-critical
- Phase 2 (starting 3 August) – up to 20% of our people can come back to the office on a voluntary basis
- Phase 3 (TBC) – we’ll increase our capacity up to 50%.
- Andy, what practical support have KPMG given to younger employees who may not be able to work from home effectively?
- We have a lot of information on our intranet as a starting point, and we ensure people have keyboards and other computer equipment.
- We encourage people to come forward if they feel that their set ups are not appropriate.
- We have a buddy network, which is a space for people to chat and raise their concerns.
- We have surveyed our workforce to understand what will work for them. That has been the centre of our approach. We involve our people in all the decisions we make.
- 80% said they were happy working from home, and 70% said they would like some ongoing flexibility in the way they work in the future.
- Sinead, what has the situation been for Linklaters?
- We have been predominantly working from home throughout this period.
- In future, we’re going to have a mixture of people in the office and at home.
- We have been surveying staff on wellbeing, and we asked people if their home situation was such that it was necessary for them to return to the office.
- The guidance is changing from 1 August, so we are looking at scaling up to allow more people to come back. We have done another staff survey, on a voluntary basis, to ask staff whether they would like to come back.
- For those who may want to return, we are interested to see how often they would like to come into the office.
- Sinead, given the potential of a second wave, are you cautious that we won’t all come back in the Autumn?
- There is a note of caution on rushing everyone back into the office.
- I think a lot of people are thinking, even if there is no second wave, do we all want to return to work as normal?
- If we get flexible working requests in the future, it will be challenging to tell people they cannot work from home when so many have worked seamlessly during this lockdown.
- However, there are challenges. For example, if you are working from home while your entire team have chosen to come back in, that raises challenges around promotions and work recognition.
- This process has been a bubble of everyone working and being in it together. The future divergence within teams could create challenges.
- Rachel and Sinead, what happens if someone refuses to come back to work?
- Rachel – It is about understanding why that employee doesn’t want to come back in. In the cold light of day, there is a contract in place, and we are a business. At some point, the conversation must get to the stage of whether we can help you return to work. So, we have to have the conversation with the employee.
- Sinead – There is not a one-size-fits-all approach so the conversation will be critical. If you are satisfied you have provided a safe working environment and your employee is still refusing, it could be a disciplinary matter. But there hasn’t been a ruling on this yet. It will depend on your risk assessment and the steps you have taken, plus the individual circumstances. What constitutes a risk for one person will not constitute a risk for another. Employers need to be mindful of the risks that are arising.
- Rachel and Sinead, are you comfortable recruiting people over Zoom?
- Rachel – We can easily do it over Zoom and Microsoft Teams. What concerns me is culture and values. Who we are as a business can get lost when you are individually working from home. Sometimes what drives the culture and values of a business is the office environment. We have the infrastructure to enable home-working, but that element worries me. Sometimes it feels like all we are doing is functioning. I am looking forward to being in an office.
- Sinead – We run vocation scheme programmes as part of our graduate recruitment programme. Typically, this involves having them in the office, meeting people and seeing the set up. The process has now been shifted online. I’ve had a couple of calls from people who are at home with their parents, so replicating the office experience for them is tough.
- Rain, what do you think this means for the economy over the next six months?
- A lot of professional services firms and even some within manufacturing are now working from home. They’ve found people have been more productive and their wellbeing measures have increased as commuting is not good for physical and mental wellbeing.
- Fewer days in the office is what we can expect going forward.
- How do we make those physical spaces safe when we do return to work?
- Even if they wanted to return to the office space, most offices are saying they could get up to a maximum of 75% capacity.