How employers need to treat their staff when it comes to returning to the office or resuming work following furlough - Jodie Hill

The last 14 months have been long, and no business will come out of lockdown unchanged by the Covid pandemic.

Some businesses may have sadly gone under, others will have gone into hibernation, some will have adapted in order to survive, and a few may have thrived. However, all will have been affected by coronavirus.

As we dare to look ahead, businesses need to consider how they go about returning to the office and what this means for staff.

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It is important that employers consider the impact of Covid on their employee’s mental health.

Home offices may be less frequently used as we head into the summer.

Research has shown a significant decline in mental health during the pandemic, with isolation, social distancing, work uncertainty and money worries providing a perfect storm for anxiety, depression and stress.

Most people will be feeling relief that restrictions are being lifted, but the impact on mental health is likely to be long-term. Lockdown has affected people in different ways and returning to work from furlough or going back to the office may be overwhelming for some.

People are likely to feel confused, worried and apprehensive, particularly if their organisation is making adjustments to the way work is carried out and to employees’ roles. Some people may feel safer working from home and may want to continue.

Working parents have been hit hard over the last 14 months. It is important that employers take a sympathetic approach to workers with childcare responsibilities.

Employers should discuss individual circumstances with their employees and be as flexible as possible to work together as we move towards the lifting of restrictions in the summer.

A mix of home and office-working and flexible hours may help some parents.

Communicating with employees is key. Don’t leave them in the dark about what’s happening as this will increase anxiety.

Be open, honest and transparent, with an empathetic and flexible approach to each employee.

Ask staff for their suggestions and actively listen and follow through on what you commit to do.

There is a lot of talk about whether employees will have to have the vaccine to attend work or whether ‘vaccine passports’ will be mandatory.

Employers should consider their position on vaccines sooner rather than later as this can allay concerns people may have. Ensure the company has a clear policy and is consistent in its position, addressing the legitimate reasons for refusal.

One-to-one discussions should be offered to anyone concerned and questions answered quickly.

At the moment, at least, it appears that in most cases employers will not be able to demand staff have the vaccine. It could become a condition of employment for new employees, and current staff can be encouraged to have it, but managers should be careful not to take any form of punitive action against those who don’t. Businesses could find themselves subject to a claim for constructive dismissal or other legal action.

Whilst Chancellor Rishi Sunak claims working from home will not become the new normal, some people will want to retain the flexibility that lockdown has given them. Employers should consider being flexible in the future.

The last year has shown many employers that one size does not fit all and while some people will be eager to get back to the workplace, others will have found homeworking more productive and family-friendly. Above all, compassionate leadership will prevail in the months ahead. Listen, take suggestions, and have an open mind.

Jodie Hill is the founder of Thrive Law in Leeds, a Law Society Member and a mental health campaigner.