Returning to Work in the Shadow of Covid-19’s New Normal

The challenge ahead for business as usual

Following what felt like a long period of waiting, the 10th May saw an announcement from the UK Government on their plans to rebuild and recover from the effects of the ongoing Coronvirus Pandemic. 

The Governments roadmap for how, when and the ways in which the UK will adjust its response to the COVID-19 crisis, sought to set out a directive on how our way of life will adapt to balance the, at times, conflicting needs of our distressed economy and those associated with the preservation of health. 

Around the world, countries have taken unprecedented steps to deal with Coronavirus, ranging the mandatory closure of all but essential amenities and enforced stay at home, quarantine orders. Which by the end of March 2020, over 100 countries worldwide had instituted either a partial or full lockdown.  

The approaches to dealing with coronavirus across the world have been wide-ranging to say the least

What this meant in real terms for businesses operating throughout all sectors, was a dramatic change to the ways in which they operated. Resulting in a halt to trading altogether, with employee’s being placed on furlough or being made redundant, or for those in the knowledge & service sectors of our economy, a dramatic shift to include fully at home working. 

But following this most recent announcement, detailing a phased transition to resume operations and services, the challenge faced by business owners, leaders and HR counsel alike, is how to return people back to work safely, whilst maintaining a degree of confidence in the timing being right to do so. 

And whilst there’s a great deal of nervousness and reticence being felt for the millions of people now being asked to return to work. Following many months away from normal routines and human interaction combines with a desire to get back to some sense of normality and business as usual.

Who’s Returning to Work First?

Unlike those who have been working in essential service categories, such as ‘front line’ workers in healthcare and food retail, many have found themselves working from home or unable to work at all. The request from the Government however on the 10th May stated that anyone performing a role that they’re unable to do from home should make contact with their employer, to discuss plans about returning back to work. This included roles in construction, manufacturing, but also extended to roles performed in peoples homes such as nannies and housekeepers. 

In turn, this has seen a significant impact on those working in HR or those leading smaller operations, resulting in their quickly having to synthesize the guidance in preparation for people returning back to the workplace.

Ensuring the Safety of Employees is Paramount

The top and enduing priority throughout this ongoing health crisis and the return of employees to the workplace have and continue to be ensuring the safety of employees, in addition to ensuring your business is acting in accordance with the Government guidelines of how to do this.

In your workplace you need to observe, where possible, the social distancing guidance

In fact, there has been a series of detailed and comprehensive guides, outlining the measures that employers must put in place whilst reopening operations and resuming service offerings provided on the UK Government website. 

The guides on how to work safely during Coronavirus have been clear in providing key guidance for multiple sectors broken down into eight service categories:

1 Construction and other outdoor work

2 Factories, plants and warehouse 

3 Labs and research facilities

4 Offices and contact centres

5 Other people homes

6 Restaurants offering

7 Shops and branches

8 Vehicles 

Yet throughout the guides, HR leaders and employers will find consistent themes that ensure the safety of their employees, which include protocols around continued to adhere to social distancing, so employee’s continue to stay & work 2 metres (6ft) apart from other people, in addition to further clear guidance on how to manage risk.

Risk Assessments

All employers are being asked to carry out a risk assessment ahead of recommencing operations, with a small exception in place for those businesses who have less than five employees. Here, there is still the requirement to conduct the assessments, but with no expectation that the assessments are documented in the same comprehensive way that larger employers must do.  

As an employer, there are legal responsibilities that must be adhered to, in order to protect workers and others to include members of the public from risks to their health & safety.  Carrying out a risk assessment led by HR, health & safety or individually if you’re a business owner, will help you decide whether you have done everything you need to do in order to operate safely. 

As an employer, you’re required by law to protect your employees, and others, from harm

For those who have no former experience of carrying out a risk assessment, and even those HR professionals who may have in the past, there is specific and detailed guidance available on how to do perform these assessments effectively, available through the Health & Safety Executive.  

These guides not only outline how to manage risk assessments at work, but also provide specific advice on how to control the risk of Coronavirus in the workplace.

Adapting to the New Normal

But what does all of this mean in real terms for employers and their employees returning to work in the midst of an ongoing public health crisis? Well, in short, there’s no escaping the fact that a new normal way of working is here and will be for the foreseeable future at least. With Cornoavirus predicted to be around until Spring 2021 in the UK, and the race to have a vaccine ready and available, still very much ongoing. The workplace environments that many left behind in March, are currently a thing of the past, which means contemplating innovative ways to navigate the challenges bought about by the changes in play. 

These will include thinking about how to stagger the start & finish times of employee’s, to minimise the risks of too many people sharing communal areas such as entrances & exits to buildings, lifts and communal stairwells at one time. Whilst also factoring in how to support employees who may be faced with the challenges of travelling to work if they have no alternative option to using public transport. Which has been deemed by the Government as a means of travel that should be avoided, unless there are no alternative options, such as cycling, walking or driving available?

Return to work: will hot desking go cold?

But these changes will also impact the very fibres of our traditional working culture, many of which we took for granted before the global pandemic took hold. Workspaces will now need to be spaced apart in order to meet the parameters required for social distancing. Communal areas such as kitchens, break out areas and shared workspaces will no longer be operational. And for office environments that have embraced the premise of hot-desking, which involved employees switching from a fixed desk they would use every day, to selecting any free desk available on arrival to the office, will be prohibited now in line with guidance to help limit any potential spread of infection from one person to another.

Handling the Impact of Change

All of these changes, combined with the ongoing pressures of collectively living with the disruption and challenges bought about by this pandemic will inevitably impact employee’s and business leaders alike. 

The fine balance of having to resume operations to save what is fast becoming an increasingly distressed economy and the health of employees is a blend that many modern workplace environments won’t previously have experienced to quite the same extent. 

Yet the impacts on people’s health and wellbeing from this pandemic are not only physical but also psychological. Which could include anxiety about the ongoing crisis and indeed anxiety about returning to the workplace in significantly different circumstances to those formally experienced?  Through to employees continuing to be faced with the challenges of juggling childcare whilst working, until a time that school & childcare services resume. 

For many, these anxieties will feel extreme and debilitating and it’s essential that as HR and business leaders we prepare ourselves for an increase in requests for 121’s to talk through concerns and explore workarounds to current working challenges. 

It’s imperative of course, that all HR related discussions are recorded effectively, helping people managers, business and HR leaders alike to have secure records of all 121’s, any requests made by employees, changes made to accommodate these requests and any absences that occur as a result of sickness or perhaps caring responsibilities.

Create amazing work-life experiences for your people with HR software CakeHR by Sage
Create amazing work-life experiences for your people with CakeHR by Sage

It’s here that CakeHR’s safe and secure cloud-based HR Management solution comes into its own. Providing users with accurate employee record keeping, that can be managed from anywhere in real-time. And it’s safe to say, that removing the barriers to effective HR record-keeping has never felt more necessary than this current time.

Looking Ahead

Whilst the challenges of returning to work in the shadow of Covid-19’s new normal, present significant changes to many businesses, looking ahead, there are opportunities to innovate beyond the ways in which we have worked in the past. 

Many prominent business leaders are predicting a permanent change to the ways in which people work, with Chief Executives of Barclays and WPP predicting an end to crowded city centre offices and flexible working becoming a permanent new normal.  

This offers HR leaders an opportunity to work with business leaders to come up with decentralised ways of working, creating satellite offices or workplace environments for people to work closer to their homes and families. Which in turn would result in improved facilities in out of town suburbs and more rural areas, as people are encouraged to turn away from the commute, to minimise city office over-crowding. 

Flexible working will be norm after lockdown, say Barclays and WPP bosses

This also encourages a more detailed conversation for HR and business leaders, on exploring the potential of moving towards a four day work week, which is being welcomed by New Zealand’s leader Jacinda Arden as a solution to many of the challenges now faced with returning to work in an ongoing COVID-19 world. 

As the chart below shows, more than 30% had placed the business “in hibernation for the foreseeable future”, while just over 40% were “sharply reducing their business size” | Source: TIA
As the chart above shows, more than 30% had placed the business “in hibernation for the foreseeable future”, while just over 40% were “sharply reducing their business size” | Source: TIA

As the world takes its time in resuming work once more, the challenge ahead for business, as usual, is one that we all must continue to work through together.


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HR management software app system CakeHR human resources
HR management software app system CakeHR human resources

CakeHR by Sage is a cloud HR and people management solution that streamlines and automates your HR processes across the end-to-end employment journey, while creating really engaging and rewarding experiences for your employees.

Written By

Jade Taryn Graham

Jade is the founder & CEO of Inspired a people & talent consultancy working with the most innovative early stage companies worldwide. Founder & CCO of Inspired Talent Media Ltd and contributing writer for Sage HR where Jade writes about people, leadership, work/life balance and change.