Supporting Re-Entry to the Workplace

In the shadow of Covid-19, how HR can make for an easier transition

As business leaders, HR and people managers you have spent months adapting to the seismic changes brought about by COVID-19. You have worked hard to take your colleagues, employees and teams through changes that have included enforced periods of lockdown, working through challenging conditions that may have included being on the front line as key workers, or adapting to the challenges of working from home

You will also have handled periods of increased employee sickness, be that as a result of coronavirus itself, the anxiety it induced, or through employees taking time out to care for relatives who were unwell. 

This time has undoubtedly been one of enormous challenge, requiring pace to respond and adapt, accuracy in getting the responses right and untold agility to maintain that pace whilst holding both yourself and your organisation together. 

But now, following these challenges and uncertainties. You find yourself entering a new period, one where change must continue to be responded to and adapted to. One where re-entry to the workplace for most if not all employees will become the primary focus of the efforts taking place. 

Here we explore the ways in which HR can help make the transition easier for all involved.

Evaluate the three tests on returning to the workplace set out by CIPD

From August, the UK Government’s advice for England took a shift from encouraging employers to implement home working, to one where employers have been given much more discretion in decision making about how their staff can work safely from the office or workplace environment. 

Businesses should pass three tests before bringing their people back to work

The CIPD (chartered institute of personnel and development) who will be well known to Human Resources professionals, are advising HR and employers alike to go above and beyond the guidance set out by the UK Government on meeting specific guidelines on working safely during Coronavirus

In addition, the CIPD are urging businesses to meet and pass what they describe as being the three key tests essential, ahead of bringing people back to work.

The three tests

1️⃣ Is the return to the workplace essential?

Is it essential that people make the return? The questions for HR and business leaders to pose are, can people continue to work from home? And can they continue to do that for the foreseeable future? If they cannot work from home, is their work deemed essential or could the business continue to use the Government’s Job Retention Scheme for longer, up to the point that the scheme draws to a close. This will give employers the time needed to ensure safety measures are fully established along with having clear employee guidance and consultation put in place. 

2️⃣ Is it safe to make the return?

It’s clear to all employers and with it HR, that they have a clear duty of care to identify and manage risks that will ensure the workplace is sufficiently safe to return to. 

This will understandably involve social distancing measures, reconfiguring workspaces and common areas, possible changes to working hours to reduce risk of exposure to large numbers of employees and increased workplace cleaning and sanitation measures. Additional considerations on whether the workplace is safe will also need to be considered in environments that provide shared building and office space, such as business parks, town and city offices. Those where shared lifts, kitchen facilities, stairwells may also pose additional risk to contamination and exposure. Engagement with building facilities management.

CIPD advise that Employers should take their time with gradual returns to work to test the measures put in place in practice and ensure they can work with larger numbers at one time, before encouraging more of the workforce back to the workplace all at once. 

3️⃣ Is it mutually agreed?

Research by CIPD found that four in ten people are feeling anxious about returning to work. Understandably there are also concerns by people that they could be forced back to the workplace. What’s critical is that HR and business leaders ensure there is a clear dialogue between them and their people so concerns, which could range, commuting to work using public transport, through to having an underlying health condition can be raised and discussed, along with any concerns being taken fully into account. It’s clear that in order to manage some of these issues, there will need to be flexibility on both sides of both employer and employee to accommodate the concerns, and establish working patterns, practices or schedules that can meet the needs of both the business operation and employees. 

It’s evident that the premise of re-entering the workplace is a challenging one, one that the CIPD Chief Executive Peter Burns describes as being a “massive undertaking, likely to prove much harder than the original lockdown as there are so many variables.”

Peter goes on to explain that “Business owners must balance their desire for getting their business up and running again with the safeguarding of their people’s health and well-being. Government guidance and health and safety will only go so far; businesses must think about what is needed for their own organisation and the specific needs of their people.”

Businesses who heed the advice given by CIPD and carry out the evaluation of the three tests, are in a good position to get the transition of supporting employees re-entry to the workplace, right.

Use data to help with decisions of who should be back at the office and when

A key way in which HR and business leaders can make decisions on who should return to the office, is through the use of data. This not only helps to ensure that decisions are being made based on facts, but this also offers HR an opportunity to accelerate the use of data metrics and technology.

Data and metrics enable HR to evaluate what work needs to be done where and by whom. It also supports decision making on how workflows can be improved upon. 

Data can also drive insights into which employees should re enter the workplace at each phase or stage. Providing for examples answers to questions such as what roles will be business critical to the workplace environment. 

Organizations must consider how skilling will evolve during the transition back to the workplace and into the future

When it comes to deciding who should return first, evaluating the following data sets can support the decision making process:

  • Which business activities will need to be performed physically on-site?
  • Who of your employees possess the blend of skills, behaviours and performance capability to make them ideal candidates for a first or earlier phase return to the office? 
  • What data insights through employee engagement surveying or evaluation are there to determine which teams and employees are prepared to return to the workplace first? 
  • What opportunities are available for combining roles, streamlining roles or job-sharing? 

Data will also play a vital part in decision making about roles that could be streamlined or combined to support a phased approach to re-entry. Be it for employees who have initial concerns about a return to the workplace and require additional support, or for those roles that could benefit from being combined in some way. The questions that data can inform in this area include: 

  • Which work activities and processes have been impacted significantly by the pandemic? 
  • What improvements from remote work could be integrated long term? 
  • How have business priorities now shifted? 

Beyond re-entry to the workplace, by having a good data capture and measurement practice in house, HR and business leaders can also: 

  • Capture feedback from employees on how they’re feeling and responding to the changes taking place
  • Equip managers with insights on performance and employee engagement
  • Provide clarity on how goals and success measures are being met

CakeHR has a host of features that can support businesses with both the capture, measurement and analysis of employee data, all of which are critical during not only this period but long term for helping businesses to achieve their strategic goals. 

Help people manage their re-entry anxiety

A further essential consideration in supporting re-entry to the workplace is that of anxiety and how it will be impacting employees at all levels. 

Harvard Business Review has written recently about how anxiety is near-universal right now — ‘a natural reaction to unnatural circumstances and an uncertain future.’

As a result, it’s recommended that if you haven’t done so already, placing employee well-being at the top of your agenda is as essential, as ensuring your workplace is COVID secure. 

Train leaders, managers, and colleagues on how to support employees

Understandably, employees are looking for assurances from their employers, which means that ensuring you have a consistent approach to communications is essential. A recent research study by Harvard Business Review showed that “employees who regularly receive updates from their companies are more likely to have positive views of their employers. They are more likely to be proud to work for their companies (by 55%) and to look forward to going back to work (by 43%).”

HR will also be called on during this time to train leaders and managers on how best to support employees with their anxiety. Not all managers will be well versed in how to support employees through crisis situations, nor specifically in the case of this re-entry to work scenario, will they be trained in how to handle the complexities that could be raising anxiety levels. 

One further suggestion that offers scope to support leaders and managers in this area, is to consider running workplace re-entry orientation sessions. These will enable a collective focus for colleagues and people managers to work through topics that will support transition; working in an augmented environment, building personal resilience, adapting to change, handling ambiguity, to name a few. 

The aim is to help employees reduce their anxiety as they re-engage with their colleagues and the workplace environment in the context of COVID-19’s challenges. 

Even though you’re feeling better, it doesn’t always mean that you’re no longer experiencing a mental health problem

In the efforts that HR and business leaders have taken to respond to the demands of COVID-19, and keeping colleagues safe, it’s important to keep in mind that these changes will have impacted not only the physical environment, but also the emotional state of employee’s too. And whilst it’s necessary now for us all to adapt to the new conditions presented by this new normal, it’s also possible now, potentially more than ever, for HR to take great strides in supporting their people with the very unique challenges being experienced at this unprecedented time.


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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.