Returning to work after lockdown: Transitioning to flexible working


“It is not that I don’t want to return to work, but I hate having to go back into the office”, begins Matt*, an office employee of a company based in Glasgow city centre. “I am very uncertain that the danger has passed, and the anxiety I have been feeling for the past three months went up since we’ve been told that we must come back into the offices. The period of me working from home showed that my numbers had not suffered: save for the weeks I was furloughed, I’ve produced the same, if not an even higher output than prior to the crisis.”

Matt is not alone in this sentiment. As the UK Government has announced the change on the stance about working from home versus returning to work in the offices from the 1st of August, emphasising that employers will have more discretion in making their decisions, the chatter among the workforce shows a generalised discontent and heightened stress and anxiety. A 2000-person survey showed that a third of people in the UK felt unsafe returning to work, with an added 10% saying that they had no other option.

For businesses, this can mean continuing remote working, returning to places of work, or a phased combination of the two - flexible working -  during a transition period, in close consultations with employees. The polled leadership teams cited the “worry about doing the right thing”, establishing the burning question: how can we provide the extra support to the workforce as we transition into the post-COVID workplace?

The statistics paint a very serious picture – up to the end of June 2020, there have been 9.3 million furloughed employees in the UK alone. And as furloughing has not been a common practice since The Great Depression (and even then, not a widespread one), we are entering an unknown territory. So, where do we go from here?

Establish the risk of deteriorating mental health among formerly furloughed staff

Two or three months of interrupted routine for someone who has been working since they were seventeen creates a Newtonian-sort of effect: the body that has been in motion at first wants to keep moving. Once it has experienced inertia, it wants to maintain the motionless state. That, of course depends on the personality, but even if you followed some of Liz Hardwell’s brilliant advice from the start of the pandemic, we all must admit that there were days of simply not having anything to do.

And now the inertia has been interrupted by a severe thrust into forward motion, often with smaller teams and bigger workloads. We have a situation where the formerly furloughed employees are between the proverbial rock and a sanitiser-smelling place: extra responsibility piled on top of already fragile mental health due to the widespread pessimism that follows natural disasters, wars, or, well, pandemics.

In the late nineteen-sixties, psychologists Holmes and Rahe developed a scale of evaluating oneself regarding the stresses people are exposed to during the singular years of their lives. The scale was then used as an accurate model of predicting the consequences on one’s mental health based on the results. Taking the test can help people see clearly if they are at risk of illness due to stress, enabling them to enlist help if needed.

Furthermore, the furloughed employees have reported and avalanche of conflicting emotions regarding their jobs and their place in own organisations. Many are asking themselves: ‘Was I furloughed because I wasn’t good at my job?’ Combined with the redundancy fears, questions of this kind are adding to the uncertainly and the enhanced sense of injustice that shakes people’s confidence and makes them feel vulnerable.

Many employees that have been working from home are now left with a feeling of not having a closure. Suddenly, their workspace is gone, some of the colleagues are not with the business anymore, and the whole world is upended. And if they have stayed with the business while some of their colleagues were made redundant, turbulent feelings are just beneath the surface: on one hand, there is a relief that ‘it wasn’t me’, and on the other hand, there lurks survivor’s guilt.

What can HR do to ease people’s return to work?

Not all is doom and glooms as it stands. Re-onboarding employees with empathy and sensitivity can go a long way when it comes to managing the stress caused by the uncertainty. Having a plan and communicating it well, with as much transparency as the business allows is crucial, even if there are only small changes, like establishing the guidelines for flexible working.

And as we all know, the physical safety, although not perfect or guaranteed, is pretty much within our control: training on a variety of new health and safety practices, such as hand washing, disinfection of surfaces, social distancing and wearing masks. All of those are easily visible issues. But research shows that many companies have yet to consider other key elements of employees’ well-being. Matt, from the beginning of our story, feels being forced to come back into the office, instead of having been offered a flexible working option and an opportunity to address his concerns.

Rather than chewing on the best practices, maybe our focus should be on addressing the “next practices”, defined as “actions with a solid correlation to business performance, which most companies have yet to take”, by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp). Kevin Oakes, its CEO and founder, said in a webinar that so far mental and emotional well-being of employees “have been a taboo conversation”.

Trace Peckett, our Director of Learning Operations agrees: “Back in February, we organised an event on Well-being in the workplace and I had the pleasure of speaking to over sixty representatives from across many sectors, interested in their well-being strategies, and this was before COVID disrupted our world.

“The reception was highly positive; however I do think we still have some way on our journey to go, with some views being that wellbeing is solely the responsibility of the employee. In the post-COVID world, that simply cannot be the prevailing attitude. In simple terms, I have always found that having healthy employees, whether this being physically, emotionally or mentally, is not only the right thing from a human-centric perspective, it also creates an environment in which people perform at their best, so a good outcome for all parties”.

I4cp’s futurist, Jay Jamrog elaborates: “Our research has shown […] that prior to the pandemic, the artifacts of people’s organisational cultures – photos, awards, missions, values, whatever – were on display as constant reminders of what the company was all about. When the pandemic sent people home to work, companies that already had healthy cultures found that they didn’t need all that stuff. People understood and shared a common purpose.”

How can you make sure that your furloughed staff is supported when coming onboard (again)?

The latest live poll done by HR review during a Re-onboarding webinar in July 2020, showed that a whopping 42% of workplaces in the UK only plan to welcome their people back during the next three to six months, with additional 21% being unsure on when or how to proceed, especially when it came to the themes of managing stress and fostering resilience.  

Educating your employees on stress management goes much further than simple compliance. According to the World Health Organisation, in recent years depression has become the most common cause of ill health and disability worldwide, and mental ill health is responsible for 72 million working days lost each year, costing the economy £34.9 billion each year in England alone. And the post-pandemic results are only trickling in – which by itself, is not a bad thing: it can give you time to tackle the issues right at the outset, rather than becoming the part of the often grim statistics.  

At Sponge, we have seen an interest from clients in developing bespoke elearning for holistic wellness programmes, as well as off-the-shelf courses on stress management and workplace resilience. Targeted training such as this can help people transition back from furlough and minimise involuntary responses like fear. However, it is worth thinking strategically and interweaving the approach to well-being right from the onboarding, or re-onboarding process.  

Furthermore, in a post-COVID world, as more organisations permanently adopt flexible working from the home or office, how we train employees is going to significantly change. Digital learning is going to have an even larger role to play in our new world.