19 Feb 2021

Corporates seeking a return to office-working this year face a new set of employee wellbeing questions

By Jenny Brand, Director at Teneo.

As the third lockdown drags on – past Christmas, past the Beast from the Baltic, past who-knows-what-else in the coming weeks – we clearly have a desire to return to the office when safe. YouGov polling shows that fewer than one in five workers want to only work from home, while businesses gain from the office’s important role in boosting creativity, corporate culture and employee development. Home working will remain, but it will be balanced with time back in the workplace.

However, returning to the office is no simple task – as some of us may have experienced last summer. Having packed our laptops and struggled into some work-appropriate attire, we returned to a workplace much changed from what came before. In came the hand sanitiser and plastic screens. Out went our pre-pandemic way of working, so too employers’ past relationship with their employees’ health.

At the time, these changes may have felt temporary – a bridge between the pandemic’s supposed early peak and it apparently being wrapped up by Christmas. Now we know that change is here to stay.

Covid-19 looks set to be an ongoing part of our lives. The virus is varying and mutating and, sadly, is unlikely to just go away – something evidenced by Health Minister Edward Agar’s comment that the Government is considering annual booster jabs to ward off Covid-19, similar to how we fight flu. For business, both its continued presence and its lasting impact create a range of challenges.

First, employers will need to stay abreast of Government guidelines. Having made strong progress with its vaccine rollout, the Government looks set to encourage offices to reopen this autumn. This means offices will reopen before the Government intends to lift social distancing guidelines, so some measures will stay in place. Plus, in the longer term, variants may require new measures to be introduced. Understanding and implementing these will be no easy task.

What’s more, employers will need also to consider their vaccine and testing policies. Doing so is fraught with potential pitfalls. Understandably, most employers will want to encourage staff to be vaccinated. But what to do with employees reluctant to get the jab? How, while respecting employee privacy, can vaccine uptake be monitored within the workforce? These are not easy questions, and no one answer will work for every business.

And these are just the most immediate and tangible concerns. The pandemic has changed how employees view employers’ responsibility to their health, something which is an important driver of trust. We’re yet to fully see just how Covid-19 has shifted these expectations, so employers must be switched on to this change.

In America, we are seeing the rise of the Corporate Medical Officer, dedicated to staying on top of these challenges. Given all the above, should such a figure be employed? The role is uncommon the UK (for now) but it is an idea that demands consideration.

The reopening of offices will provide clear and vital benefits. Yet it will also present a new and difficult set of challenges for employers, with Board agendas continuing to be weighed down by points around employees’ health. There is much to discuss, and many opportunities to assess. Deciding action, though, will be tough.

Originally published on 19/02/2021 on LinkedIn as part of the #BCOVoices series of expert blogs.

Cleveland Clinic London, which is building a new state-of-the-art hospital to open at 33 Grosvenor Place, Central London in early 2022, and the leading CEO advisory firm Teneo, have collaborated to develop a set of services to support corporates in getting their staff back into the office when government guidance permits. Interested? Get in touch. Follow Jenny Brand on LinkedIn.