Returning to the office: putting staff at the heart of the business

With a mass return to the workplace – whether that be the office, factory or leisure arena – on the horizon, business owners, HR managers and health and safety professionals will have to ensure that their premises are as risk free as they possibly can be.

In the post-pandemic world, the workplace has changed forever, and in our first face-to- face round table since February 2020 our guests discussed the different measures business owners need to take to ensure they’re giving staff a compelling reason to return to safe offices, as well as being fully up to speed with the latest rules and regulations.

Our panel also looked at how employers can play a part in motivating staff and how the cultural change towards more agile ways of working can benefit the organisation as a whole.

For Rob Day, CEO of Blueprint Interiors, the pandemic has had a profound effect on the way his business operates.

He said: “At Blueprint we like to enjoy being around people and we’ve been able to continue to work here from our Worklife Central headquarters safely almost throughout the pandemic. Shutting down the interaction we have between our staff is never a good thing for our company, but our work practices have enabled us to continue to work effectively.”

For Scott Knowles, the chief executive of the East Midlands Chamber of Commerce, the pandemic had been a chance to learn more about his organisation.

He said: “The strongest message we’ve received from the last 15 months is the acceleration of our members’ digital footprint and just how much collaboration there was between businesses in the immediate aftermath of the first lockdown last March. I think this will be a model that will be followed as we go forward.

Knowles said that as lockdown eases, though, he is still wary. He added: “Post-June 21 – or whenever the Government decides to completely relax restrictions – we still don’t really have an idea of what ‘good’ looks like.”

Gina Spering of Steelcase outlined how her business is adapting to new ways of working by saying it was looking to a future of hybrid working and that productivity, choice and collaboration would be key factors in a business’s success, post-Covid.

Andrew Millington from consultancy firm Finch added: “We’ve been working across a vast amount of sectors, and I’ve been struck as to how agile our clients have been – as well as own our staff. Despite missing the social aspect of being in an office together, they’ve responded really well. We’re now in a good place and back to a certain level of normality.”

Nicki Robson of Breedon Consulting said that people are now able to work anywhere in the country, but that she is “chomping at the bit” to get back in the office and out networking again.

Paul Godwin of LRB Consulting said that one barrier to the return of staff to the office could be a perception of risk.

He added: “Companies need their employees to feel valued; they’ll need to be treated as VIPs when the return to the office as the reason some are wary of returning is a perception of risk.”

Leena Patel of Consultus said that companies are now looking at how best to utilise their offices.

She said: “We’re looking at using our space in different way, and I suspect many other companies are doing exactly the same thing. Business owners will need to reassure people that they have the correct precautions in place so that staff can return and feel confident about being in the office.

Dave Hockton of SciPro agreed, and said he thought we were heading into an era where businesses will occupy, smaller, agile and cleaner space that works for everyone in the organisation.

Miles Bates of Gleeds said simply because of the nature of the industry he works in, he’d not noticed too much difference from the first lockdown started in March last year, but that the pandemic could create a skills gap if businesses didn’t act quickly to train, upskill and nurture their talent.

John Tansur said there are different perspectives at play at the moment, compared to March 2020. He said: “Fifteen months ago there was very much a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’; I think that’s changed somewhat as we’ve been able to interact face-to-face more. Now, there is a mix of collaboration and ways of meeting people – I don’t think everyone will be rushing back to the office all at once.”

Day agreed with Godwin about making people valued. He added: “Staff, post-Covid, will need variety. They won’t want to come and sit in the same place for 40 hours a week. They’ll need to feel valued – the last 15 months have created so much more choice. Also, if they’re supported and have their skills nurtured, they’re much more likely to look after clients to the best of their abilities.”

Knowles concurred, saying: “If you force everyone back into the office then you’re taking that choice away. I think businesses need to seriously consider a series of questions as restrictions ease, such as: how do you get the best from your talent in the future?; young people need mentors – what does that mean for the business?; how does the flexibility of workplace now open up the marketplace for jobs?”