Welcome to the third instalment taken from my HR Insights podcast.
In this post, we're going to be covering the practicalities of returning to work, post lockdown and we'll answer the following questions:
- How can I continue to keep my staff safe and reduce the risk of infections in the workplace?
- How will staff adapt from home working, or being at home on furlough, to returning to the workplace?
- How can I ensure that all the infrastructure changes in the workplace actually work?
- And importantly, how can I ensure that staff stick to the new rules?
Today, I'm going to focus on the practicalities when re-opening your workplace and how to keep staff safe and reduce the risk of infections. Then we're going to get some insight as to how to help staff comply with these new ways of working. It wasn't long ago that we were terrified about going out of our front door for fear of catching a deadly virus that could kill us. Now, here we are, three months plus later, expecting staff to travel to work, sit in the office or workplace and work normally. I just don't think it's going to be that simple.
Recent research has highlighted the number of changes that businesses are already making with a view to getting staff back to work. The People Management Poll showed that 67% said they would be altering their workplace layout to support social distancing. 54% said they would be staggering shifts to reduce contact, and a similar number said they were planning to hold fewer and shorter meetings and stagger break times. 66% also said that they have discussed with staff how safe their commute was before asking them to return to work. What is clear is that employers need to put their people first in all decisions about their return to work, and that staff need assurance that they will be working in a safe and supportive environment when they come back to the workplace.
So, first, let's think about these workplaces. Not all workplaces have closed fully. Some workplaces are operating with a skeleton staff and some are operating normally, but with most staff working from home. All government guidance is that where possible, staff should work from home. But bear in mind, this doesn't suit everyone. And as we mentioned in the last episode, there may be some for whom working from home is just not working, and it would be prudent to try and get them back to work, at the work premises, whether part time or full time. Again, this should be discussed with them. As the lockdown restrictions are lifted, business recovery is going to be paramount and there is a tangible difference between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There are different documents outlining how each country will move out of lockdown and open up. And they are all different. So firstly, make sure that you are referencing the guidelines that are relevant to your business operating area because they are different. They're also changing rapidly, as I am finding out, trying to record this podcast before it all changes again. It's important to be aware, too, of sector specific guidelines to help you plan your business opening. For example, there's guidance available covering construction, warehouses, labs and research facilities, offices and contact centres, etc. Full involvement of staff and making workplaces safe is recommended in the government guidance and will help to create a culture where relationships are based on collaboration, trust and joint problem-solving.
To recap from previous episodes, the Chartered Institute Personnel Development have helpfully given businesses three essential tests to meet before bringing people back to the workplace. And I'm going to use that framework in this podcast. The tests are:
- Is it essential that people return to places of work?
- Is it sufficiently safe?
- Is it mutually agreed?
I think this is a helpful framework for considering how to keep staff safe. So, let's consider some of the practical advice that has come from the government guidance, ventilation and maintenance. Government advice is that workplaces should be well ventilated and ventilation systems should be checked in case they need a service or adjustment. So, if your workplace has been closed, before opening up, you should think about any maintenance work that you will need to undertake. For example, ensuring that heating and air conditioning systems are fully functioning.
You may also need to consider provision of a deep clean before reopening, especially areas like toilets that are operating after significant periods of under use. Given the way in which Covid 19 spreads, which is either by being in close proximity to an infected individual, particularly through coughing and sneezing or contact with contaminated surfaces, you will need to consider what cleaning needs to be done. Staff are understandably going to need to be reassured that everything possible has been done to ensure their health, safety and well-being when they come back to work.
You will need to think about what areas need to be deep cleaned or disinfected. Areas may include common areas, reception areas, stairwells, changing rooms, bicycle storage bays. Desks and other office furniture, keyboards and telephones, all will need to be cleaned and regularly. Consider high intensity touch points, for example, door handles, lift call points, which will all need more regular cleaning every day. Toilets and showers must be cleaned very frequently and there should be social distancing when in use.
List portable items that staff would come into contact with, such as whiteboard markers, phone chargers, crockery. Consider whether they need to be used. Can they be removed? If not, how will they be cleaned? Consider whether you'll open up hospitality areas such as shared kettles, microwaves, coffee machines, fridges and vending machines. You might decide to close all of these areas and instead encourage staff to bring their own food and drink to have at break times.
Ensure all phones and keyboards are wiped daily with antiviral cleaner and sure that bins are regularly emptied, particularly where tissues or gloves or masks are being disposed of. And ensure these are disposed of correctly. If you need posters, they're free to download from the Health and Safety Executive and from the World Health Organization Web sites. I think it would be a good idea to share your cleaning routine plans with staff to reassure them and make cleaners visible if possible so that staff can see the level of cleanliness being maintained.
Moving around the building
You may well need to think about identifying on floor plans, new walking routes and flows for supporting social distancing measures and physically mark these clearly around office floors. You might need to consider one way systems. You might need to use lifts differently by designating which can be used for up or down and reduce the number of people using lifts.
Reminders of personal hygiene standards, hand washing, hand sanitising and coughing, sneezing protocols should be well publicised. You should provide hand sanitiser around the building office space, workplace. Paper towels should be used for hand drying where possible and put signage on your premises and generally communicate up to date Government and NHS recommendations to prevent infection spread, specifically around hand washing and mouth covering. Avoiding touching your face. Physical distancing. No hot desking and avoid face to face meetings when you can't do these virtually. Try and reduce any requirement for staff to visit the premises as well. Make the most to remote meeting facilities and video conferencing, wherever possible, to minimise the need for staff to travel and or use any public transport. Where travel is necessary, and particularly where employees need to use a vehicle, measures should be put in place to minimise person to person contact. If you have company vehicles, they will need to be regularly cleaned, particularly between users.
You should support workers in using a mask if they choose to. Already, I think this is becoming a bit of a personal choice if it isn't in an area where the wearing of face masks is mandatory. Everyone will have a different opinion on this, and they are all valid. If the wearing of a facemask or PPE is required in your workplace, you need to think about training and briefing staff on their correct use since PPE can be ineffective if used inappropriately. This means telling staff to exercise care, maintaining good hand hygiene before putting on a face covering and after taking it off and changing the face covering regularly and always after it gets damp or if they touch it. There is advice on PPE on the government Web site. And I have provided a link to this on my Website.
Changing staff rosters
To comply with physical distancing, you may need to look at changing and adapting staff rosters and maybe split teams to ensure a separation. You might need what's being called an air gap or delayed shift change over to accommodate a full clean or disinfection of all shared equipment and reduce unnecessary interaction between different shift personnel. You will also need to consider who can carry out this cleaning and what supplies need to be in place ahead of the return to work. When social distancing guidelines cannot be followed for a certain task, employers are encouraged to think about whether that task is necessary for the business to operate. If it is, they should take all the mitigating actions possible to reduce the risk of transmission. Such actions would include the frequency of handwashing and surface cleaning and possibly putting in screens in between staff.
One important way in which to keep staff safe is for them to receive training on the Covid 19 disease and know the ways of preventing the spread of infection. There are some free online courses available. And don't forget that even if your staff are furloughed, you can still ask them to undertake training whilst they're on furlough leave.
As well as looking to protect your staff, you need to think about visitors to your site. You may need to restrict access in order to limit potential spread. All visitors will need to comply with your onsite measures and processes and procedures regarding infection control, i.e., hand washing, hand sanitising and the coughing, sneezing etiquette. A visitor questionnaire can be useful for you to ask everyone visiting to complete and may even form part of the track and trace process.
If you have a reception area, ensure the reception team are fully aware and trained on the new visitor policies. I can provide such a document for you if required. For staff who aren't returning to the workplace in the foreseeable future, they may well be continuing to work from home or starting to work from home. I will be covering this as part of this series in another podcast. When planning all of these practical precautions, remember, engage with your staff and with trade unions or other worker groups and keep everything under review.
Interview with Andrea Quinn of Geelox Ltd, Behavioural Science Expert
I'd now like to introduce today's special guest; Andrea Quinn is Managing Director of Geelox Ltd. and a specialist in the application of behavioural science in the workplace. Welcome, Andrea.
Oh, thanks for having me on, Caroline. A pleasure.
Thank you. So, I wonder if you can help us in thinking about how best we can help staff to stick to these new rules. As organisations prepare for staff to return, how can they ensure from a behaviour point of view that staff can follow these new rules?
There are probably two areas to think about here. If we were to group behaviours and the first one being those behaviours in use in personal protective equipment and social distancing, and then there's probably a second set of behaviours around wanting staff to come forward and tell you when they need to self-isolate if somebody in their family themselves or people they've interacted with have shown symptoms of coronavirus. So perhaps we should start with the PPE and the social distancing then.
If we think back to when we started this whole pandemic, well actually even before lockdown began, we talked a lot, there was a lot of talk in the press around making sure that we weren't shaking hands. And if you remember, footballers were doing different kinds of gestures of respect, nodding heads etc. But can you remember in those early days when you met somebody for the first time when we were all still face to face at work, the automatic reaction was to stick out your hand, to shake hands with somebody and for the person to reciprocate by shaking hands back. And if you remember, it felt really alien at the beginning for us to say, oh, no, we can't do that anymore. And so it's going to be interesting when we think about the kind of automatic behaviours that people are going to do when they get back into a familiar workplace, but in those early days, we were kind of motivated, initially in lockdown, a lot by fear of something that's quite invisible. And so, from behavioural science, what it tells us is we assess what behaviours to do by anticipating the potential consequences that we get from doing a behaviour.
And what we can also do is assess the likelihood of those consequences occurring. So initially, when we're quite motivated by fear, we are very conscious about our behaviours and we're very conscious in our choices and the decisions that we make. But as time goes on and as we are now many weeks and months into lockdown and a new way of working, and that fear isn't as potent as a motivator anymore, especially if you've been lucky enough not to be affected by the virus at all or anyone that you know. And so, it's going to have to be quite a conscious effort on everybody's behalf to learn new habits.
So how can we deal with old habits? I mean, for example, it'd be really easy to take the shortcut across the carpet using the path to my workstation that I've always used. How can we help staff with that?
If you think about most of the behaviours that we do every day, at least half of them are formed by habits. So, these are the things that we do unconsciously. We do automatically to get us through a day. So, if you think about all the behaviours you will have done this morning since getting out of bed, even getting out of bed, you will do that without thinking. So, putting one foot in front of the other as you're walking along making a cup of coffee this morning, we don't actually consciously think about every single behaviour required to get those results. And that's actually a good thing, because imagine how exhausting it would be if we had to think about everything that we did very, very consciously. So, when we do a habit, it's usually prompted by what's called a trigger. So, something will trigger us to do a behaviour. For example, I'm still feeling a little bit sleepy after I got out of bed. I'm going to go and put on the kettle and make a cup of coffee. We will do that in an environment where there are in place lots of triggers that we've been used to and probably practised the following behaviour thousands of times.
Employees in the workplace are going to be fighting against the strength of those triggers in an environment that's very familiar. And so, what we've got to try and do is create new triggers that will form new habits. At the beginning, that's probably going to be very conscious. So, remember the first time you visited a supermarket after lockdown? I know myself personally, I was very, very careful about only going once a week. I would take some antibacterial wipes with me. I would have a face mask with me. Everybody stuck to the rules. They followed the one-way system you didn't encroach on anybody closer than two metres. Now, we've been working like that for quite some time and it's formed some new habits. But yesterday in the supermarket, people have gotten very used to the fact that, oh, if I miss what I need on that shelf, I'm going to have to go around the long way again. And much to my horror. A lady in the supermarket yesterday reached right in front of me into my personal space to grab something off a shelf she'd forgotten with an 'oops, Sorry about that' and off she went. And that's because as humans, we've kind of gotten used to the fact that these rules are in place. But what we've also learned is that with some of these new behaviours come new consequences. So, if anything takes a little bit more effort, we're going to take a shortcut, because as I said earlier, the strength of motivation in terms of fear isn't as potent as it was at the beginning, because we've lived this way for so long.
So, people now weigh up the consequences in front of them. In this case, with the lady, she thinks about going all the way around, down the next aisle and up again the other aisle and thinks I'll take the risk, I'm going to lean in, I'm going to take the risk and grab that bag of salad. So, what we've got to do is fight against these old triggers and old habits and create new ones. So, what I started to do, for example, is leave lots of facemasks by our front door so that it's minimal effort to grab a facemask as you leave the house. I have hand sanitiser in my car in both of my handbags, and my husband's got hand sanitiser in his car. So, we've always got on hand. I bought really nice smelling soap and it said in every single sink that we've got in the house so that it's enjoyable to use not just available, but also enjoyable to use and really nice hand cream. And the masks that I have are ones I've made myself, which are also very comfortable to wear. So, in drawing parallels in the workplace. If employers think about the PPE they're going to buy, they think about making it comfortable. They think about making it very available. That's probably one of the things I would recommend.
I love the idea of the fact that you make it really easy to remember to take your face mask with you by leaving it at the front door, it's a bit like having all the reusable shopping bags, but we always leave them in the house and not put them back in the car. But if they're by the front door, it makes it really easy, doesn't it, to actually then remember. And it's something that's going to be really important in the future.
Yeah. I think the other thing that will be important in the future in the environment that people are in is making it OK for people to say, hey, hang on a second, you know, you're not following the two metre social distancing rule and not feel guilty about that. For example, we had a family over for the first time at the weekend and we made a joke about it. So, we got some tape measures out and we put the tape measures out in the lounge and said, this is the first time we've all been indoors together. Make sure everybody respects two metres. But we were serious about it, but we did it in a joking way. And there's no reason why in the workplace that challenge can't come. In fact, it's essential that challenge comes from the people that we interact with every day. But it doesn't have to be in a confrontational way. It can be in a jokey, pleasant way.
That's a good point. And also, socially, we're already experiencing the fact that people do have slightly different rules about hand sanitising and washing their hands and how close they get and whether they're going to use their own cup when they go to a friend's house or whether they're going to allow their friends to make them a cup of tea. But in the workplace, that's going to be quite different, isn't it?
It is, and I guess as well being very conscious about it at the beginning but making sure that people don't slip into old habits. One of the really, really good ways of thinking about this is if the old environments that people are going back to are full of old triggers that will prompt old behaviour, is there a potential for employers to mix things up a little so that when you go back to work, you really do feel like you're going back to a new environment?
So one other thing that employers might want to consider when they're rewriting the processes so that people can do whatever it is in terms of routines and processes that people do each day in the workplace, they might want to consider getting practitioners to walk and step through each of the behaviours required in that process. Very often what I see in my work is that there are written down processes and then there are actual behaviours that people do to follow those processes. And it's not always the same things. So if it's possible to do so, and safe to do so, it might be worth getting practitioners to walk through things like the shift patterns that you're suggesting and the way in which people might work at 2M distance, etc. because they're the ones that can give you really good feedback.
So, can you tell us a bit more about environments and how employers can change the environment to encourage new habits and change old habits?
Yeah, so perhaps one of the things they could think about, one client I'm working with has the top floor of a building and everybody has individual offices in that building where maybe two or three people might be located. So, it's a good opportunity for those people who are going to be physically present, perhaps to swap offices so that everything feels completely different. So, there's less chance of having old triggers where you may be able to pop along and have a coffee in the normal place you would go and have a coffee. If it feels very different and from the beginning, you'll be bringing your own things with you to work, it's more likely that people are going to obey the correct social distancing rules. Appreciate that's not always going to be possible with employers, but little changes in the environment can still have quite a big impact on some of those triggers.
One other thing I haven't mentioned is around the other group of behaviours about people voluntarily self-isolating, if somebody has actually experienced symptoms or somebody they live with or has interacted with experienced symptoms. One of the best ways in which to think about this is from a consequences perspective. So why might somebody still come to work if they’re experiencing symptoms or if one of the members of the household have? Well, if it means that they're not going to get paid, for example, then they're going to take a risk aren't they, of coming into work.
If they're made to feel guilty. So, if they're made to feel really guilty about letting down the team because there aren't enough resources, then that might be another reason why they take the risk or if there just aren't any contingency plans for how parts of the work might run. If that's not been thought through. So what employers need to do, I reckon the best thing for them to do is to be thinking about what would make it more likely people will do the right thing by looking at how they pay sick pay and how they make it a guilt free process to ring up and say, you know, I really need to draw this to your attention. I don't think I should be at work right now, and make sure that there are contingency plans, so people make the right choice.
That's really helpful, Andrea. Thank you so much. Well thank you for joining us and sharing your top tips for some of the behaviours that we can think about when we're planning full staff to come back to work.
If people want more information, Andrea, what's the best way that they can get in touch with you, please?
Thank you so much.