The Reluctant Returners – Returning to the Workplace Post-lockdown

Posted in : HR Updates on 2 July 2020
Olga Pollock
firmus energy
Issues covered: Coronavirus/COVID-19; Health & Safety

As the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions continue to ease most employers will be keen to start planning ahead for staff returning to work after the pandemic. Some of those will be raring to return, whilst others may hold serious reservations. But how do we manage these so-called ‘reluctant returners’?

The first and most crucial step will involve creating a safe ‘Covid-secure’ environment in line with health and safety guidance where social distancing and a clean working environment is maintained. Businesses should also have a Covid-19 policy in place including details around what to do if staff show any symptoms of coronavirus.

Once the environment is safe, and the policy is in place the next step is communicating this to staff. Begin to ‘sow the seeds’ about returning to work as early as possible, and in line with government guidelines. Regular updates should be provided to staff through a range of mediums including video conferencing, email, staff FAQs and the Intranet if available. Staff should be invited to ask questions either directly during staff updates or anonymously via an online survey, for example. It is not enough to simply state that the workplace is a safe working environment; employers will be expected to prove it. Video is a highly effective method of showcasing all of the Covid-secure measures that have been put in place in the workplace. It not only acts as an induction tool for returning colleagues but helps people to psychologically adjust to the new environment in advance of their return.

Consultation should then take place with staff during which they should be listened to with the aim of alleviating or negating specific concerns. Be honest. For managers that have already returned, tell staff if they were scared too and what helped to put their mind at ease. Try to get to the real root of employees’ concerns and why they feel this way. This will help manage their expectations and shape how the return to work process is handled. The best outcome is to try to reach an agreement with the employee in any way that you can to enable the continued relationship between you and to get the employee back to work.

Be mindful of specific circumstances around travel to work, health conditions, shielding, pregnancy or caring responsibilities of children of elderly relatives, for example. Specific risk assessments should be undertaken to take account of these issues, the outcome of which may be to continue to work from home, where possible, for the foreseeable future.

Of course there will be staff who are physically able to return to work but who have particular concerns about doing so, whether it’s about workplace safety, or concerns over ‘taking the virus home’ to a vulnerable family member. Again, consultation is key in trying to quell such concerns and provide reassurance. Putting extra safety measures in place such as a desk move to more secluded part of the building or allowing such individuals to work from home for a bit longer may suffice in reducing fears. For those that have a preference for home working, why not take stock of your flexible working policy. Can permanent homeworking be accommodated or even for a few days a week? Such measures can be highly effective attraction and retention tools and reap other benefits such as reducing office space and associated overheads.

A good starting point in terms of determining who should come back to work first, is to seek volunteers. This is a quick win and such individuals are may even act as ambassadors for your recovery strategy and ‘sell’ it to the more reluctant staff.

Phased returns will play an important role in managing your recovery strategy, much in the same way as they do following a spell of long term absence. They will help staff with the transition back to work and may allow employers to bring more employees back through a rota-based approach.

There is no doubt that coming out of lockdown is proving to be significantly more challenging than going into it in the first place. A gradual return to the workplace is much more advisable than a sudden rush back for everyone and stand-offs should be avoided wherever possible. It is not possible to force an employee back to work and alternatives should be considered such as offering them to take annual leave or unpaid leave. The disciplinary route is a far from ideal solution and will only serve to disgruntle staff and spoil employee relations in the longer term. A much more positive approach is recommended though effective communication, listening and empathy. Once the ‘reluctant returners’ start to see that the workplace is a safe environment after all, they will likely become more open to returning. While social distancing measures remain in place it is unlikely that workplaces will be able to accommodate everyone anyway, which in itself, should also help alleviate psychological barriers for some.

Useful Reading

Bringing employees back to work: The reluctant to returner

Life after lockdown: the reluctant returner (health and safety)


This article is correct at 02/07/2020

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Olga Pollock
firmus energy

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