Return to work: calling all commuters!

What to expect as we return to ‘regular’ life post-lockdown

The schools and pubs are open, the sun is out and we can finally go shopping!

From 21 June, the Government’s Roadmap suggests we will be able to go to a night club and go to work – though probably not in that order. But what does that mean for commuters?

Without doubt, Spring has brought welcome relief and a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. However, for those who have spent a year working in their attic, garden studio (aka shed) or youngest child’s bedroom, it also brings the possibility of a return to rush hour commutes, queues out of station car parks and running the gauntlet to collect unappreciative offspring from over stretched wrap around care.

The old-style commute brings huge benefits: vital last minute meeting prep that simply wasn’t possible from around the family breakfast table; a tangible distinction between work and home life; or simply catching up on the latest Netflix series that your partner insisted on talking through the night before. Not to mention the joy of seeing real life people, freed from bizarre Zoom backgrounds.

However, for many, the value of being able to escape one’s nearest and dearest or to work at a desk that wasn’t designed for a small person, is offset by the worry and anxiety inherent in any return to the office – there is a clear tension between being ‘welcomed back’ and ‘mandated to return’.

Part of the current anxiety is driven by uncertainties surrounding timing. Pundits disagree as to when normality will return. Last month KPMG published its 2021 KPMG CEO Outlook Pulse Survey, reporting that almost half of global executives do not expect to see a return to a ‘normal’ course of business until some time in 2022. Others have predicted even longer periods of reshaping and rebuilding.

The BBC published its own survey showing that of 50 large companies (covering around 1.1 million workers in the UK) 43 planned to embrace a mix of home and office working, with staff encouraged to work from home two or three days per week. Mark Read, CEO of WPP, declared the media titan will never see a return to old ways of working. Similarly, earlier this year Nationwide published its ‘work anywhere’ plan.

However, not all employers take the same view. Goldman Sachs has notified its staff that they need to be ready to begin returning to the office in June, its CEO having previously described working from home as “an aberration”.

Whilst few would agree with such a view, there are many good reasons for wanting to bring staff back into the office safely:

  • support and training for juniors and trainees;
  • mental health concerns relating to working in isolation;
  • ideas sharing;
  • support for the local smaller businesses that rely on footfall in our city centres.

However, a swift return is unlikely to be possible for most. Pressure of reduced childcare, ongoing medical needs, mental health conditions and practical issues of space and equipment shortages, will all influence the nature and pace of change. Challenges of commuting in a socially distanced fashion will also need to be addressed. As a nation we have become better cyclists in lockdown but, for the vast majority of us, there are limits to our pedal power.

Clear communication and realistic timeframes will be essential to avoid the return to work having the same disruptive and destabilising short-term impact that the sudden switch to homeworking had back in March 2020. Mandated swift returns will inevitably lead to increased levels of sickness absences. A one size fits all approach is unlikely to be successful and there will be difficult conversations ahead about the health and safety risks of commuting versus the proven success of home working evidenced in targets met.

Our top tips for a calm and anxiety free return are:

  • Consultation is key: talking to staff about expectations and the specific business needs that justify the requirement to return are important. Try to avoid talking to staff in abstract terms.
  • Focus on the positives: welcoming people back but asking them to continue spend a certain amount of time at home, works better than the reverse.
  • Flexibility: commuter hours, support with commuting and listening to staff concerns about their return will help to promote confidence. Flexibility cuts both ways.
  • Risk assessments: creating, sharing and monitoring risk assessments will also help to allay concerns and keep people save.
  • Small steps: Graduated returns and mentoring for those with anxiety will be key. 

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