What should employers prioritise during a return to the workplace?

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The prospect of a return to workplaces has been the cause of new alarm to employees. What’s the real priority, finances or health and safety?

Almost half of UK employees are anxious about the risks from COVID-19 in going back, according to a CIPD poll. The coming months will be a major test of employee relations, opening up the potential for a flood of employee activism, secret filming, refusals to work and constructive dismissals. And dealing with workplace conflict can’t be put on hold until ‘normal’ service resumes.

For HR, when nothing about the working world is normal, it’s much harder to hold anyone to account for their behaviours. There are suddenly more mitigating circumstances for displays of challenge to authority and poor performance, as well as obvious barriers to achieving a resolution.

For employees in sectors like construction and manufacturing, the first to return, there’s also the challenge of having fewer ways to communicate their concerns.

Following government advice on risk assessments, social distancing and protective equipment to the letter is essential - but only the first step. Physical measures are just the start. Because the most widespread impact of COVID-19 has been psychological.

ONS stats this month have suggested people are far more worried about what the pandemic is doing to their mental wellbeing than the risk to their physical health.

Workplaces in the ongoing pandemic will be held together by trust and engagement: the willingness among employees to put aside immediate concerns for the good of the organisation as a working community, trying to be part of the recovery.

That will be dependent, most of all, on staff knowing that any grievances will always be listened to - even when channels aren’t as straightforward as they had been in the past - and that grievances are acted on quickly.

Trust will come from seeing how, even in exceptional circumstances, there are working processes in place and disputes will still be resolved as quickly as possible, not swept aside or postponed.

Critically, there is a need to make sure managers have the skills to deal with difficult conversations, the inevitable increase in numbers of concerns being raised and disputes between co-workers.

Managers need to pay attention to their levels of ‘conversational integrity’ - how they go about making sure they are listening, have self-awareness and empathy, and are able to deal with conflict rather than just look for ways to avoid it.

Following the standard processes isn’t always possible given social distancing rules and lack of availability due to furloughing or absence. Mediation is already a service that can, and was regularly used pre-COVID-19, online via a video platform.

Investigations can still be run remotely, and there continues to be access to external expertise to support the setting up of new processes and dealing with complex cases.

It is important, though, to look at the detail of existing grievance policies - is it stipulated that disciplinary meetings, for example, have to be carried out face-to-face? Or within a specific time frame? Amendments might be needed to make conflict processes workable.

For all the new challenges and the risks from the unexpected each working day, this difficult period is also an opportunity for HR.

Now is the time to demonstrate the strengths of a workplace, its social bonds, the qualities of its people and the role HR has in bringing out the best in everyone involved. It’s a chance to build a strong legacy of good conversations based around empathy, openness and trust.

Richard Peachey is a consultant at CMP

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