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Boris Johnson's ‘roadmap’ leaves HR in the lurch

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Plans to return to the workplace after the UK’s third national lockdown are unclear leaving HR teams with more questions than answers.

On Tuesday (22 February) prime minister Boris Johnson announced a four-step plan to ease lockdown restrictions in the UK. 

A return to workplaces is not mentioned until the plans’ final and fourth step that aims to end the lockdown entirely.  

Before a decision on alleviating working from home where possible is made the government will need to complete a review of social distancing and other long-term measures that have been put in place to cut transmission of coronavirus.

Sabby Gill, CEO of talent assessment platform provider Thomas International, said that the absence of a date for when offices can reopen in the roadmap out of lockdown is curious.

Speaking to HR magazine Gill said: “It strongly suggests there’s a belief our economic recovery is no longer dependent on offices themselves reopening, rather on businesses being able to continue trading. Which means hybrid working is expected to stay.

“But this leaves many HR teams in a lurch. They need clarity on when and how it will be safe to re-open workplaces.”

Without clarity, Gill said, it will be difficult to create workable hybrid working policies or start to reintroduce furloughed staff.

“Making a success of hybrid working requires a culture of change. One that understands not all roles are the same as they once were. The consequence of leaving the return to the workplace out of the roadmap suggests this is an afterthought,” he said.

Alan Price, CEO of BrightHR said that businesses who were eager for working from home guidance to be relaxed in England may have been disappointed with the four-step plan.

He told HR magazine: “Having the prime minister simply confirm that staff should continue to work from home if they can and not confirming when this will change, was not ideal for HR teams.

“Until we hear more on this, HR should ensure the company continues to follow current government guidance and keep up to date with all changes.”

Even when the time comes that staff can be asked to return Price said it may still be advisable to do so gradually and not all at once.

Jennifer Locklear, chief people officer at ConnectWise, said a lack of without government guidance means HR will have to create their own. 

She said: "HR should publish thorough guidelines in advance of opening company doors. Communication plans for what to expect if someone tests positive in the workplace, if vaccines will be required, and what to do if you suspect someone is unwell. This will show your employees that you are being proactive in your return-to-work plans.

"It’s also important to normalise being unwell, advising employees to stay or work from home if this is the case. Having rapid test kits in your office will help as well so that if someone is concerned you can send the employee home with a test and a small sense of security." 

Locklear also said employers must be mindful that staff may not be able to immediately 'bounce back' into a workplace environment.

She added: "People are processing these experiences very differently, and not everyone feels fully equipped to bounce back. Line up resources that your people can have available should they need them. Sometimes it’s as easy as sharing an HR partner’s email address." 

Further reading

Back to life, back to (a new) reality: the workplace after furlough

Half of workforce believe employer will remove remote working after coronavirus

Majority of HR to encourage remote working post lockdown

Third lockdown pushes workplace inequalities to brink