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Lockdown lift off? Considerations for business as restrictions are removed

Diane LightfootDiane Lightfoot, CEO, Business Disability Forum

The Prime Minister has announced that all COVID restrictions will be lifted on 19 July, placing the onus on individuals to use their own judgement to manage the risk of COVID-19. Requirements to wear masks and to social distance will be scrapped.

But that doesn’t mean that individuals won’t want to continue wearing masks or to socially distance and this is where the judgement comes in – and where the lack of guidance also shifts responsibilities onto employers, retailers and service providers to make decisions about how and where they operate. Alas, there is no easy answer – certainly no magic bullet – but here are some thoughts for employers and service providers to consider.

Firstly, respect personal choice – we all have different levels of tolerance to risk, different levels of vulnerability ourselves and of those we live with and our social circle. Many people will want to continue to wear masks, to avoid public transport, to socially distance – and we need to respect that. Conversely, perhaps employers have a role in (gently and supportively) encouraging employees to take small steps back to a previous normality; the risk of not doing so is that the longer you haven’t done something the more overwhelming it feels to then do so. Trying to create a structure around these steps may help – for example, some of our members are telling us that they will not be requesting or requiring that employees return to the office until they have had both vaccinations (or the opportunity to have them).

Many industries have seen that many roles can be done remotely so employers may well be on a sticky wicket if they start mandating a return to the office without being to demonstrate that there is a strong business imperative to do so. Before COVID-19, home working was the workplace adjustment most frequently requested by disabled employees and the shift to home working in the past 16 months has been a huge plus for many.

That said, not everyone wants to work from home or can work from home. Employers also have a duty of care to their employees and to their customers in terms of privacy and data security so may need to mandate an acceptable home working environment (i.e. not working from a cramped bedroom unless there is a dedicated desk and seat arrangement, or not working from shared accommodation unless privacy can be guaranteed and other similar considerations). And there are also undoubted mental health, team building, informal coaching/mentoring, creative and social benefits from connecting with others in our teams. So, some organisations are encouraging (but not requiring) employees to come in. This is positive for those who want to come in and see others – but what if they come in to find themselves in an otherwise empty office? How can you make a hybrid model work on a practical level?

Some of our members are telling us that they are classifying roles as “office first” – e.g. premises managers, reception staff, direct and frontline service providers – “home first” – some back office e.g. tech functions or written functions or “hybrid” – customer facing but not direct service providers. This can help to provide a sense of context of fairness and equality in who is required to come in and when. But what if the classification does not match the employees’ preference?

Another option is to ask each employee what their preference is and then seek to match that with others so that you have a rota system based on working style preferences rather than job roles or hierarchy.

I’ve written previously about hybrid working and not creating a two-tier workforce (Adjust our Workplaces 2021, sponsored by Microlink) and the importance of senior leaders practising what they preach and role modelling a hybrid model – whatever it looks like.

The only thing that is sure is that one size won’t fit all. We need to take this opportunity to really listen to our workforce and co-create the organisation that we want to be.

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