I was surprised by the findings of a survey just published by the Manpower Services Group: workers in the UK are far more negative about returning to the office than those in other countries, like France or Germany. What’s going on? It seems that we are much more worried about the likelihood of a second wave of infection. And many commutes in the UK are much longer than those in other countries, where business centres are often smaller and more centred on their local regions. The London underground in particular is not an attractive proposition for many people.
Conflicting official advice may not be helping. As I write this, many working parents in Scotland say they feel that their families are the guinea pigs, as schools re-opened earlier this month. Advice for the rest of the UK - that pupils should not/should/only some should wear face-coverings - can only be adding to worry and uncertainty. Face coverings at work? Even more widely varied advice!
Other surveys recently have picked up concerns about the possible risks of hot-desking, of using lifts, of eating in staff canteens. Women are far more worried than men are about all these routine aspects of office life, as well as being more likely to be carrying the majority of responsibility for any childcare in the family.
For long-suffering leaders, who have already had to learn overnight how to establish and support working from home across most of their teams, and who are now grappling with the logistics of getting people back on site safely, whether your staff are happy about new arrangements may feel like the least of your worries.
But actively seeking to understand and assuage concerns is likely to pay dividends.
Uncertainty causes stress. Stressed workers, work less well. Flip that round, and you can see that people who feel heard, and feel treated fairly, will worry less and work better.
Now is the time to build strong foundations for what is likely to continue to be a bumpy ride, with winter flu, school closures, and local lockdowns all possible additional difficulties as you try to establish new routines and some form of reliable workplace normality.
Employers I am talking to are taking this moment to consult, to listen, to respond with empathy.
And there have been some surprises. Not everyone is wedded to homeworking. A significant number of people have discovered how important being with colleagues is to their mental welleing: they are your core returners. A significant majority of office based workers now hope for a future of blended working, two to three days from home, two to three at the office. There’s your flexible cohort, to enable you to reduce the numbers on site each day, to manage social distancing.
It’s too easy to talk about the new normal. The thoughtful leader will understand that life at home and at work continues to be far from normal, and that each of the people in your team will have their own concerns, and their own tolerance of real or perceived risk. The successful leader will make sure they understand what their people want, think and feel; will not be afraid to share reasonable uncertainty; and will be honest about change, as change is required. Because change is the one continuing certainty for us all.
Our thanks to Sarah Jackson OBE for this article.
Sarah Jackson OBE is a leading authority on work-life issues in the UK. She led the work-life charity Working Families for 24 years and was appointed OBE for services to quality of life issues in 2007. She is Chair of Parents and Carers in Performing Arts and a Visiting Professor at Cranfield University School of Management.
Sarah has been instrumental in shaping family-friendly policy, legislation and public attitudes for over two decades. Her fresh thinking about the UK’s work-life challenges has included the creation of Go Home On Time Day, the Happy to Talk Flexible Working recruitment standard, and the annual Working Families/Bright Horizons Modern Families Index
Parental Choice works with businesses to support their employees who have childcare or eldercare responsibilities. We do this through helping them secure long-term dependable childcare or finding care homes for the elderly, all supported with a programme of wellbeing talks and presentations to provide emotional strategies designed to help with the challenges of juggling a family and a career.
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