The government has given the green light to end Covid restrictions including social distancing, mandatory face mask wearing and work from home guidance from 19th July, but Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing is urging employers to tread carefully, communicate well and listen to their workforce as they plan a return to the workplace.

Mark Fosh, Divisional Director at Howden says, “Whatever the workplace environment looks like, whether it is an office, a workshop, a factory or a mixture of home and on-site working, the needs of employees may not be the same as before the pandemic. And, while companies will be preparing a Covid-safe office for Freedom Day, they need to consider how they will support the different psychological, emotional and wellbeing needs of their staff too.

“Whereas some employees cannot wait to be back in a social work environment, others may be feeling very anxious. They may have been shielding or haven’t used public transport for many months. Businesses may have new joiners who haven’t met their colleagues yet or employees who are returning after being furloughed– these are all key considerations for SMEs so rushing to adopt the old ways of working won’t work.”

Howden has created a return to work guide for employers on its SME Hub and has the following recommendations:

1. Prepare for the return – communicating your plans

Create a re-orientation plan to manage the process of returning to the workplace. It should include:

  • Details of what has changed at work. Is the workplace environment different? Are you adopting greater levels of flexibility and offering more options to work from home?
  • What new measures can be put in place to provide help and assistance?
  • Where do employees go if they have concerns?

Map this out in advance and ensure line managers have been fully briefed and are aware of the support in place for employees.


2.  Communicate and listen

  • Share guidelines with employees on how the return to the workplace will look and feel. Rather than adopting the old ways of working, consider a phased return to make the process less stressful for employees – and consider that flexibility may be the ‘new norm’.
  • Ensure communications are two way – be willing to listen to employees and gather their feedback so you understand their concerns – only then can you plan effective support.


3. Let employees know support is available

  • Some employees may have experienced a serious illness, including Long Covid or a bereavement since they were last in the workplace. Make sure you have the right support in place for their return.
  • Remind your employees that support is there whenever they need it. Share details of your Employee Assistance Programme, if you have one, or signpost to charities such as MIND or Mental Health UK.


4.   Focus on health and wellbeing

  • Hold ‘return to work’ meetings with employees focusing on their health and wellbeing. Allow for a period of re-adjustment and look for ways to be flexible to alleviate any worries they have.
  • Check in regularly with your employees – remember some will have had Covid and you need to be mindful of the impact of Long Covid too.
  • Be alert to any changes in behaviour that could signal a potential mental health issue.
  • Keep promoting and encourage your employees to use the services provided through their benefits and so they know who to talk to if they are struggling with their mental health.


5. Review employee benefits for the post-pandemic workplace

Do not assume the employee benefits programmes that were already in place for employees still addresses their needs now.

The world has changed and although some businesses will find their employee benefits packages are robust enough to cope, others may find they require updating. Employees are increasingly looking to their employers for greater support with their overall wellbeing. Is this included within your current strategy? Or an area that needs consideration? Are your employee benefits fit for purpose in a post-Covid world?

Fosh concludes, “Issues such as mental health and wellbeing have been covered more extensively in recent employee benefits strategies, but the topic is even more critical now. There are practical issues and questions around benefits to consider, too. Are season ticket loans a thing of the past in a time when more people work from home? Should you offer discounts at gyms close to where employees live rather than near to the workplace? With the NHS expected to face challenging waiting lists in the years to come, should employers be considering Private Medical Insurance or other healthcare solutions to support their workforce? All these elements must be carefully considered as part of any successful return to the workplace plan.”


A Free Employee Benefits Review

Howden is offering SMEs a free review of their existing employee benefit policies to check they are fit for purpose, deliver good value and achieve the best outcomes for their business and people. To book your free review visit the SME HUB.