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Do you have a hostile working environment? Here’s how to fix it

For some working from home has been a blessing; a way to avoid lengthy traffic jams, spend quality time with families or simply stay in bed an extra hour. But there are also some people for whom the office is associated with the Sunday night ‘back to school’ fear, for no other reason than they simply hate being there.

The return to work is associated with the dread of trudging through those doors with a sinking feeling, the week looming long and dark ahead.

We’ve proved we can work flexibly, and the vast majority of us want to continue to do so. Hybrid working is here to stay, and employers will be hard pushed to present a compelling argument as to why that isn’t possible. So, before we throw open the doors and welcome people back, we should be sure that we’re providing a place that’s comfortable, convenient and where people want to be.

Getting hybrid working right:

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Flexible working: what HR needs to know to make it work

Coronavirus has highlighted missing piece in flexible working jigsaw


Get your house (office) in order

After ensuring your office is operating a COVID-safe workplace, take a moment to assess your empty workplace with a fresh perspective. Sit at desks, walk around the office and think about the daily routine.

What do you see? What can you hear? Are there any overpowering smells? Are any desks in busy thoroughfares, putting people at risk of constant interruption? When people have been working in their own, familiar environment, coming back to the office can present a jarring experience. Something they may have previously learned to live with can take on much more importance after they’ve spent a year delightfully free from irritations.

As opening day grows closer, these irritants can take on a life of their own and become an all-consuming dread. If someone is clearly reluctant to come back to work, find out why. It could be a simple case of making a small adjustment to the physical working environment. And, if change isn’t possible, discuss how you can compromise with a flexible working pattern.


Start the conversation

We can’t expect people to simply turn up on day one and pick up where they left off. Before opening, leaders should have one-to-ones with every team member to establish their circumstances, ask for their preferences and accommodate them as far as reasonably possible.

Think of it as a safe space for employees to air their office-based grievances – an amnesty to declare gripes so we don’t have to return to a slew of passive-aggressive post-it notes.

Be prepared to hear some uncomfortable truths but, most importantly, be prepared to act on them.


Maintain trust

A huge swathe of the workforce has worked remotely for over a year, and they’ve established they can do their jobs unsupervised. Returning to an authoritative environment where people are expected to revert to strict working patterns, closely supervised breaks and prescriptive dress codes is very likely to result in poor morale, low productivity and an unwillingness to be back in the office.

The world has changed and we can’t go back to how things were; that includes slotting seamlessly back into restrictive working practices from day one. Micromanaging and lack of trust are the most common issues people come to me with, at all levels. They are counter-productive and serve only to make people miserable and resentful.

Trust people to perform the roles they’ve been hired to do. They’ve been through a selection process, their qualifications and skills have been verified and they’ve spent the last year consistently meeting expectations in the face of adversity.

Getting back to the office will be a time of upheaval and high emotion for many. Last March, when large numbers of people started working from home, many wondered how they would ever manage to adapt. Now homeworking has become a new kind of norm, for better or for worse, and people are being asked to adapt again.

Giving people choices, listening to their preferences and being open to change will help you to ensure that your office is a safe haven, and not a hostile environment.


Susy Roberts is an executive coach and founder of people development consultancy Hunter Roberts