Freedom Day – what did that look like?

staff meeting in office

Freedom Day has come and gone, although it didn’t exactly seem like that for many.

Government U-turns aside, it certainly didn’t feel much like that for anyone who’s settled successfully into a routine of home working and was facing the prospect of catching the 7.30 to St Pancras.

In preparation, many businesses had worked hard nationwide to make offices at least feel Covid-secure to ensure those returning face the lowest possible health risk.

But many more were facing even bigger problems in allaying staff fears as cases continue to rise and questions are being asked about the Government’s policy.

Oliver Harrison, CEO of Koa Health said their research had found that over 40 per cent of businesses admitted mental health was not a cultural priority.

flexibility will be key – and should be baked into organisations’ return to the workplace strategies

“While getting back to ‘normal’ may help improve mental health for some people, more than a third of employees are nervous about the switch,” he said.

“Having scrambled to pull together mental health resources over the Lockdown phase, now is the time for employers to consider quality, scalability and business ROI – to build back better in the mental health support they provide. At this critical moment, support for employee mental health must be as natural as ensuring employee physical health and safety. If we don’t do this properly, mental health risks slow business recovery.”

Dr Nick Taylor, CEO of the mental health platform Unmind, said: “One study suggests almost 60 per cent of employees would quit their jobs if they were forced to return to the office. That’s an alarming statistic.

“To prevent it from becoming a reality, flexibility will be key – and should be baked into organisations’ return to the workplace strategies. Employers will need to stay on top of their wider workforce’s sentiment through open lines of communication, while also considering individual feelings and needs, before making permanent arrangements.

“Every one of us is at a different stage in this Covid-19 journey, and as a result, a one-size-fits-all approach will not be fit for purpose. To avoid serious retention issues, businesses need to put employee wellbeing front and centre.”

A blanket instruction to return to the office is not recommended

Sam Liang, CEO of the technology company, Otter.ai, feels that for many, full-time in-office work is not coming back, ever. He said: “Despite restrictions lifting businesses, of all shapes and sizes, need to wake up to this fact and embrace hybrid work models – a combination of in-office, mobile, and at-home work.

“Some companies are listening to its workers’ needs and are offering highly flexible working conditions as a way to differentiate from competitors. These businesses are in pole position to not only retain staff but also attract the best talent out there, at a time when many companies are facing staff shortages as the UK economy reopens.”

Amy Tomlinson, Head of HR at MetLife UK, said for staff with reservations, it was important to be “open and honest”, adding: “From being told to socially distance, only leave for essential journeys and not seeing family, friends or colleagues, it may feel strange to overnight return to a greater degree of normality.

“Easing yourself in may help too, so perhaps see if you can visit the office one day a week to familiarise yourself once more.”

Lawyer Richard Fox of Kingsley Napley stressed the importance of employers’ communicating with staff to ensure their concerns were heard. He said: “A blanket instruction to return to the office is not recommended. Open communication, consulting with their workforce, remaining flexible and monitoring and addressing the issues and concerns raised by workers will be key.  However, this won’t happen overnight.”

Jason Tavaria, CEO at InPost, the eCommerce delivery company, said there were similar reservations among those visiting the High Street. “Many people will not be feeling overjoyed. The prospect of returning to the High Street against the backdrop of a surge in Covid cases will feel more like a gamble than a celebration,” he said.

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