Whether you’ve been furloughed or working from home these past few months in lockdown, you’re likely now facing the looming presence of calls to return to your old workplace.
It’s normal to feel apprehensive. One study has found that 47% of Brits are nervous about returning to the office and what this might mean for their personal safety, with concerns that adequate guidelines may not be in place to keep employees protected.
Alongside fears around hygiene and the actual spread of coronavirus sit nerves about returning to the old way of doing things.
For many of us, lockdown will be the first time we’ve been able to work from home for a prolonged period of time, able to spend time with our pets and pals in comfortable environments free of the daily commute, the awkward silence of a music-free office, and clashing etiquette regarding microwave use.
We’ve had a taste of more flexible working and, for some, an improved workplace balance. Are we ready to give that up?
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Don’t panic too much – or quit your job out of abject horror at the prospect of returning to normal.
To soothe concerns, reduce anxiety, and feel comfortable when the time comes to head back into the office, it’s worth asking your managers these questions:
1. Have you carried out a Covid-19 risk assessment?
Employers absolutely should not be opening workplaces back up with not even a brief consideration of coronavirus and how it could spread in your office.
Ensure a risk assessment took place and feel free to ask your boss what exactly that entailed. What risks did they find? How are they planning to tackle that?
2. What changes are in place to protect our health and safety amid coronavirus?
Based on that risk assessment, your workplace should have implemented changes to work with guidelines and ensure your safety.
That might mean reorganisation of the office layout to allow more space between work stations, the installation of screens between desks, or changing up working patterns to reduce how many people are in the office at once.
The government has guidelines for how different types of workplaces can ensure people are safe when returning to work – it’s worth going through this and checking the guidelines against what your workplace is putting into action.
If you’re concerned your workplace isn’t doing enough, it’s worth sending them those government guidelines, too. Your employer is obligated to keep you safe at work – you’re not being annoying or difficult by ensuring they’re doing what they’re legally required to do.
3. What are the new hygiene procedures for workers to follow?
As well as building managers making changes to the actual, physical office, your employers should be sending around guidelines to every worker returning to the office to ensure everyone is doing their best to reduce the spread of illness.
It’s worth getting these all clarified in writing before you head back, so you know if you need to bring your own hand sanitiser and masks or if these will be provided.
It might feel a bit weird, but ask your managers about using the toilet, kitchen, and other shared areas. What guidelines are in place to make sure these don’t become germ-ridden cesspits where you collide with your coworkers? What do you need to know about these basic needs before you go back in? Do you need to bring your own mug and take it home?
4. What’s your view on working from home going forward?
For many of us, our employers may have had a blanket rule barring working from home before lockdown made this a necessity.
If you’ve now shown that working from home works, it’s completely reasonable to ask your employers if their attitudes have changed.
If you’ve discovered that you work far better from home, it’s worth using this time of adjustment and change to encourage your workplace to consider more flexible working. Perhaps you could suggest that employees are able to continue to work from home one day a week – but make sure you iron that out with your manager before making any assumptions either way.
5. What support is there for working parents?
With lockdown forcing schools to close and shutting down childcare options, lots of parents have had to suddenly adjust to working from home while balancing looking after their children during the daytime.
If your employer is asking you to rush back to the office, it’s vital to ask what adjustments can be made for parents who need to continue to care for children during working hours. It’s likely managers will allow you to continue to work from home – but get clarification on this.
Working families has a really helpful letter template for parents to send to their bosses if they are being asked to return to work but can’t get childcare.
6. What measures are you taking to ensure social distancing is in place?
Government advice states that where working from home is not possible, workplaces should still make every effort to comply with social distancing guidelines set out by the government – so how is your workplace doing that?
Answers might include floor markings and signs to ensure workers maintain distance, as well as reorganising desks and ditching in-person meetings.
7. What if I’m in the high risk category?
Your employer absolutely should not expect someone in the high risk category, someone who is shielding, or someone who lives with someone in the high risk category, to return to the office right now.
It’s important to note that your employer might not realise you fit into one of those categories – so do make sure to flag that up if that’s the case.
A spokesperson for CE Safety says: ‘Brits should not return to work if they have been advised by the Government to shield. This will apply only to those in receipt of a letter, who are in the extremely vulnerable category.’
Discuss with your manager what plans are in place for people who continue to shield, whether that’s continuing to work from home or being put on furlough, and ask if there’s a date that high risk people are expected to return to work.
You are within your rights to refuse to return to work if you are high risk, as that could in theory fall under sections of the Employment Rights Act that say you can refuse to go to work if it would expose you – or someone you live with – to serious danger.
8. What if my commute doesn’t feel safe?
Okay, so your workplace has all sorts of precautions in place to soothe your worries about catching and spreading coronavirus, but if you have to get on a crowded train or bus to get there…
This is something you should absolutely address with your employer, for whom driving into work might be the default.
If you’re relying on public transport to get into work and are concerned about how that might put you at risk, clearly explain the issue to your manager and ask how they might be able to work around it.
It may be the case that working from home remains the best option for those who live further away from the office or aren’t able to drive, or that working hours change to prevent you getting on the bus at its most packed time.
9. What happens if someone in the office has Covid-19?
Your workplace should have a plan in place for what happens if someone falls ill with coronavirus, whether that’s sending everyone back home or arranging mass testing.
Ask what that plan is.
10. What happens if our procedures aren’t keeping people safe or workers still aren’t comfortable?
Similarly, there needs to be a procedure in place for employee concerns about coronavirus and safety, and a plan for what happens if, for example, you have a coworker who doesn’t respect social distancing measures and is constantly in your space.
Who do you talk to in that scenario? How flexible will managers be if their plans to get everyone back to work don’t go so smoothly?
11. Do I have to come back to work even if I feel unsafe?
If all the answers to the above questions aren’t soothing your worries, ask point blank if you absolutely need to come back into the office right now.
If you are completely overwhelmed with fear and anxiety and simply don’t feel comfortable returning to the office for now, explain this and put in a request for flexible working – a request you are always entitled to make.
Work out the best option for you, which may be working from home full-time or part-time, or continuing to work from home for a little longer than other employees, then put that in writing to make a formal request.
12. What care do you have in place to look after workers’ mental health post-lockdown?
Stress levels are high, anxiety is up, and it’s to be expected that many returning to work won’t be in the best shape, mental health wise.
Ask what provisions are in place to help with this, whether that’s an employee assistance programme or the addition of mental health first aiders.
Experts at Nuffield Health urge employers to consider the mental health impact of returning to a workplace that may be very different to the one we’re used to, pointing to issues of loneliness due to social distancing and asking managers to be trained to provide emotional wellbeing support.
‘As employees come to terms with the ‘new normal’ it’s important businesses put in place the right emotional wellbeing support for those who find themselves struggling to cope with changes,’ says Nuffield Health’s report.
‘If possible, invite a mental health specialist to deliver a socially distanced seminar in the office, providing actionable tips for those struggling with feelings of stress or isolation. This also helps to naturalise conversations around emotional wellbeing in the workplace and encourage employees to seek support.
‘Businesses must track COVID-19’s impact on staff mental health. This data should include evaluations from mental health professionals as well as reports from employees sharing their daily experiences with line managers and HR support.
‘Findings should be shared across disciplines, so UK businesses are alert to the concerns most affecting employees.
‘At Nuffield Health, we’ve found pointing individuals towards employee assistance programmes (EAPs) and telephone CBT sessions gives them remote access to speak to a specialist and are some of the most effective signposts for emotional wellbeing support in the workplace.’
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