After what seemed like an eternity, lockdown was gradually relaxed, and workers were able to return to work, provided it was safe to do so. This was a welcome relief for millions of business owners who were keen to get back up and running. However, it also brought many challenges, particularly in ensuring stringent health and safety measures were met.

Managing the return of staff to the workplace was one such challenge for employers. For many people, the pause from work during the lockdown was an unprecedented experience. While some individuals may have taken career breaks in the past, those breaks were often filled with lack of sleep, family support, and child-focused activities. Spending nearly a year based at home, whether working or on furlough, was unfamiliar territory for most. Therefore, employers needed to be fully aware of the potential issues that could arise when their team returned to the workplace.

Considering the Implications

In normal circumstances, the return to work is typically a phased process. Employees who have been on long-term sick leave would not be expected to be at home one day and back at their desks the next. Gradually reintroducing employees, where possible, is better than expecting a full working week straight away. Working to a rota can help ensure that the entire team has a few days back in the office environment before making a full return.

Addressing Health Concerns

Some employees may have felt anxious about returning to work, particularly regarding their health. As employers, it was essential to be fully aware of the obligations to protect the health and safety of staff against COVID-19. Compliance with a comprehensive COVID-19 risk assessment, along with measures like floor stickers, safe workstations, and regular hand washing, was necessary. However, despite these precautions, some employees may still have felt vulnerable. It was crucial to acknowledge their concerns and provide reassurance.

Recognising Different Reactions

The lockdown period had no rulebook, and each individual reacted differently to it. Employers needed to recognise and understand this diversity. Staff members who had been working from home, often while also taking care of family members, might have felt stressed, overwhelmed, and on edge. Some might have even experienced burnout. On the other hand, some employees thrived and became more productive than ever while working from home, making them resentful of returning to the office environment.

Furloughed staff, too, had different experiences during this period. Some enjoyed the break, using the time to engage in fitness regimes and DIY projects. Others felt lost, bored, lonely, and without a sense of purpose. Whatever their circumstances, the return to work would be a significant adjustment for everyone. People had developed their own routines and rhythms during the period of furlough or remote work, and reintegrating into the bustling office environment presented a new challenge. Some individuals thrived in the presence of noise and interaction, while others felt overwhelmed by the sudden change.

Temporary Reduction in Productivity

Following the aforementioned point, employers might have noticed an initial reduction in productivity. Staff members who had been away from the working environment for an extended period could find it difficult to readjust. It might take time for them to work as effectively as they had been before. Allowing a period of adjustment and setting lower expectations for the first week or so could help facilitate a smoother transition. A phased return approach could also be considered.

Mindful Handling of Resentment

When furloughed and working from home staff eventually reunited, there was a chance that resentment could arise on both sides. The team that had continued working might have felt they held the business together in exceptionally stressful circumstances while their colleagues enjoyed a two-month break at home. On the other hand, furloughed staff might have experienced anxiety about job security and felt out of the loop during that period.

By considering the implications, addressing health concerns, recognising different reactions, allowing for an adjustment period, and being mindful of potential resentment, employers could effectively support their employees in returning to work after the lockdown period.

Maintaining a balance and keeping everyone happy was a challenging task. Engaging with staff, providing clear communication and encouraging them to prioritise their mental well-being were crucial. Once it was safe to do so, organising team-building activities could be a great way to reconnect and foster a positive work environment.