The return to the office: how an intranet can help
As public life goes back to some kind of normality, there is an overriding sense of apprehension among those preparing to return to work. When it comes to re-entry for our employees, how safely can we do it?
While logistical and operational planning is at the forefront of our priorities, organizations need to respond to our employees’ emotional and psychological health.
Here, we explore how software — and more specifically, a company intranet — can help with riding out this transition period, support colleagues, and ensure a safe and happy return to the workplace.
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. As other countries experience a surge in new cases, and a second lockdown is considered, we look forward to managing a new normal. But at the same time as preparing to return to our regular duties, we’re forearmed with the knowledge that retreating back to isolation is highly probable.
Currently, official advice supports a gradual move to normal life, and businesses are preparing to welcome back their employees. After months of managing remote working, organizations are working out ways of returning to the office. This is not without continuous revision, and major implementation to maintain the health and wellbeing of staff.
Aside from the physical aspect — the one-way systems, limited access, and regular handwashing — businesses also need to consider the less tangible ways they can support their colleagues and organization.
The priorities of employers should be the physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing of their workforce. The resilience of all employees has been challenged by the current situation — although the mental health and wellbeing implications of this will vary from employee to employee. The steps taken to move forward should be done with great care.
Has lockdown readjusted our lens on priorities?
A pertinent point in returning to the office is the question of working from home. The past few months have opened up discussions on several facets of working life, and the time at home has prompted many workers to take stock of their priorities. The many benefits that lockdown has provided — the flexibility, more time with loved ones, the absence of commuting — should be discussed openly and honestly between senior leaders and employees: can remote working become more acceptable? Can working hours work more cohesively with domestic demands? Can safety really be maintained in-house?
If teams have worked well together, productivity has not been affected, and employees want to carry on working from home, could your organization enable this long term?
Equally, if half of the team wish to return to the office, and the other half want to stay working from home, could this work?
There are many reasons why enforced homeworking has been, for many, a success. Considering the wishes of your workforce will be a pressing need as more organizations offer more flexibility in working locations in order to stay competitive.
Failing to prepare is preparing to fail
As we set plans to move our employees back to the office, we need to bear in mind how uncertain the future looks. What are the most likely events to take place over the next twelve months, which could affect our organizations?
At the moment, the lack of understanding behind the virus means that future plans remain unclear. Governments have been keen to stress that while restrictions are being lifted, they could be brought back immediately. Therefore, every step in your organization’s return to business must be made as agile as possible: for example, your returning staff may need to go back to lockdown at any point, so contingency plans must take in to account the potential flux.
So, what is the best way of managing this? Departments will not only need to draw up new protocols and procedures but will continually have to re-evaluate them as guidance from the government dictates.
Managers must work together to provide a consistent message across all areas of the business. And internal communications need to be the mouthpiece and the one source of truth for all information regarding the return to normal.
The hub of all these plans and communications should be a company intranet — or any other internal communications tool that ensures full coverage, high user rates, and easy use. This type of platform is essential to making sure the entire organization has access to the information that affects them, and their work.
Here are some of the many ways an intranet can help and support you, your employees, and your business in the return to some kind of normality.
A second wave
Will a second wave even happen? Maybe. Certainly, other countries have seen a flare-up in cases as they have relaxed restrictions. Business leaders need to keep an eye on other countries who are a few steps ahead of us. Even countries like Japan and Germany, who have had admirable success in minimizing the impact of the virus, have experienced a second flare in confirmed cases.
If we’re to follow this logic, it seems likely that the UK and US will also experience a second wave — and potentially another lockdown. The first lockdown may have given us a set of rules and protocols to follow. But it’s important to look at not only the great strengths but also our weaknesses that were exposed first time around.
How an intranet can help
Your intranet should house all policies and protocols regarding your methods of switching back and forth from office working to en masse homeworking. This should be a definitive guide for all areas of the business and accessible to the entire organization.
Dedicate an area on your homepage for all COVID-19 information. Here, employees can access official news on the virus. A blog from the CEO should provide regular updates, and a forum should be set up to ask questions to senior leaders. Implementing a feature like Broadcasts also allows employers to get an important message across a range of devices in an emergency — ideal for updating workers should a second wave lockdown be announced.
Similarly, businesses can help minimize this threat by remaining vigilant with their own employees. Many organizations are establishing in-house detection procedures by taking the temperature of workers and visitors coming into the office.
Employees should help by reporting any new symptoms and have a workstation set up at home if they need to isolate but are still able to work. Other measures, such as housing plenty of hand sanitizers, and enforcing correct distancing between desks, should be adopted.
How an intranet can help
Organizations can use their intranet as a key tool in the reporting of new cases. Employees should be encouraged to use the workflow and forms feature of their intranet to report any symptoms and work out with HR their next steps with isolation protocols that can be stored within the platform.
The physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing should remain the key principle in managing the return to work. The intranet should be the touchstone for all advice on safety. It’s essential that this information, in particular, should be accessible to employees with any visual or audio impairments. Your intranet should offer all resources in video, audio and subtitled formats.
A toll on mental health
The lockdown has had a considerable impact on the mental and emotional health of countless employees. One in three working professionals reports that their mental health has deteriorated since lockdown. For those who live on their own, negative feelings like isolation and loneliness have been profound. Parents who are working as well as home-schooling their children have been frank about acute levels of stress and anxiety.
The impact on mental health has been something spoken about a lot during this crisis, but the way your particular organization deals with it is critical. Managers should be vigilant of anyone who is enduring a difficult situation under lockdown, and one-to-ones and provisions should be offered to help individual employees.
How an intranet can help
Use your intranet as a mouthpiece for mental health awareness. Emphasize the services available to your organization, whether it’s free counseling services, or providing flexible working to ease days when poor mental health surges. Promoting your business’s mental health approach will normalize the subject and ease its way into the everyday dialogue.
An intranet can support managers who are helping employees with mental health issues. Links to HR, occupational health, and proper training to help manage these circumstances can be housed on the intranet for easy access.
An over-burdened HR department
HR departments have been pulled in all directions since the crisis began. From implementing furlough arrangements to redundancies, to knotty employment law issues like asking people to come back to work, and their duty of care around the newly modified workplace.
It’s been a tricky time for HR — and with unclear information from official sources, and constant queries from an understandably worried workforce — it’s also been very fraught. Even the most senior professionals are grappling with situations they have no previous experience of.
How an intranet can help
Automating many HR processes can free up time and resources for a busy department. It can also remove the risk of human error, or the mislaying of documents. Fortunately, introducing automation via an intranet can be an effective alternative to outdated paper forms and processes.
With an intranet, you can automate workflows and generate e-forms that remove the hassle of manual, paper-driven forms and ensure that procedures are executed in a timely and constructive manner. Automating these processes allows HR professionals to manage other aspects of the return to work, among other COVID-related issues.
Many organizations will want to keep some, if not all, of their employees working in a remote capacity. Some people will welcome this, others may wish to return to the office and have a clear division between the workplace and their domestic lives.
If you’re planning on growing your remote workforce, it’s essential to look at every aspect of home working to ensure it works as well as in-house working. This means maintaining proper levels of communication, employee development, welfare, and productivity.
How an intranet can help
In order to make the decision to expand the percentage of your remote workforce, you need to gauge the thoughts of your employees. A pulse survey could help collate data on how successful this move could be. In the long term, an intranet is essential to a remote workforce — more of which you can find out here.
Many businesses will have expanded and developed their digital workplaces over the past few months of en masse home working. If remote work is working for your organization, it may be a worthwhile investment to ensure the right software is in to enable this to be more widespread. Creating a nuanced online workplace, as described here, allows remote employees to use their digital tools to recreate all the benefits of working in an office.
By the time your organization is ready to welcome staff back, your employees will have spent most of this year at home, dealing with the general worries of isolation. In this regard, a return to work will not be without its complications.
Returning staff may feel a great deal of concern returning to a full, or even half full, office, even with the recommended measures in place. Employers need to consider re-engaging their staff and examine how they can shift from home to office as seamlessly as possible.
How an intranet can help
Returning employees will need a period of time to readjust and connect to the workplace. A re-boarding process might be a good option for an organization who needs to re-engage their employees who are moving back to the office and/or unfurloughing.
Like an onboarding process, this can be stored on the intranet and be completed online through refresher modules, video training of new protocol around the office, and re-inductions notifying of changes to departments, personnel, and processes.
As the center of the digital workplace, your intranet is an integral tool to the coordination of a phased return to work. Implementing the right features — those that can collate information, present news in a digestible manner, connect colleagues and update employees regardless of their location — can ensure that your organization can get back to some kind of normality, post-COVID.
We need to be prepared to be as agile as possible in our planning, and lead and protect our workforce in accordance to official guidance. Using our intranet software as a conduit for information, a tool for two-way dialogue and a means to measure and analyse data, can ensure continued organizational success even in the most challenging of circumstances.
Originally published on 26 June 2020 on the Interact blog.