As the coronavirus crisis continues, it’s clear that business owners need to look beyond short-term reactionary fixes. Providing a safe and supportive work environment is essential for employees’ physical and mental health moving forward.
Most businesses have had to adapt their work environments to fit coronavirus restrictions. However, it’s important to regularly reassess the measures in place and check the work environment is meeting staff needs.
This article looks at how to create a healthy and productive workplace, whether you’re implementing safety measures on site or supporting employees remotely.
What workplace challenges are business owners facing?
There are a number of fundamental workplace challenges that businesses have faced during the crisis, these include:
- Creating a work environment that’s safe and coronavirus secure
- Providing remote workers with the tools and equipment they need to do their job effectively
- Supporting staff members’ mental health
However, many businesses and employees have faced additional challenges during the last few months, including the implementation of local and national lockdowns.
New workplace challenges include:
- Restoring workforce morale if you’ve been forced to make redundancies
- Minimising staff anxiety about job security and the future of the business
- Settling furloughed staff back in, particularly if their responsibilities have changed as a result of the crisis
- Adapting your workplace to fit new restrictions, including a potential return to remote working
Every business is different, so encouraging staff to talk openly about their concerns is vital in order to provide the right support.
Bear in mind that attitudes to coronavirus and work environments will likely have changed over time. Employees that enjoyed working from home or on-site at the start of the crisis might feel anxious about doing so again.
The same goes if employees are being furloughed for a second time, after the scheme was extended to March 2021. Business owners should think about the support they can offer employees who are facing another long period of time off work.
Check in with each of your staff members to find out how they feel about the work environment and what changes could be made to make them feel more comfortable.
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Staying safe at work during coronavirus
It’s important to stay updated with the latest advice on how to keep your workplace coronavirus secure. The government has published detailed guides on how different types of businesses can work safely.
Business owners should read the guide that’s most relevant to their workplace. However, there are some general safety precautions you can follow:
- Complete a coronavirus risk assessment if you haven’t already. It will highlight practical measures you can take to reduce risk, like staggering shifts and providing additional handwashing facilities
- Clean shared tools or equipment more often and limit the number of people who use them
- Ask customers to wear face coverings in indoor spaces (read more information about legal requirements for face coverings)
- Introduce a one-way system to help with social distancing
- Use NHS Test and Trace and keep a record of staff, customers and visitors for 21 days (find out more about maintaining Test and Trace records)
Business owners should also factor in individual employee circumstances where possible. Staff members who care for high-risk family members or are high-risk themselves should be given extra consideration.
What to do if an employee needs to self-isolate
An employee shouldn’t come into the workplace if they:
- Have coronavirus symptoms or test positive for coronavirus
- Have been told to self-isolate by the Test and Trace service
- Need to self-isolate because someone in their household has symptoms
If your employee has to self-isolate, they should tell you as soon as possible, work from home if they can and not come on-site to work.
Employees who must self-isolate but can’t work from home should receive Statutory Sick Pay (SSP). The Coronavirus Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme allows some employers to claim back employees’ coronavirus-related SSP. Check if you’re eligible here.
Employers can be fined up to £10,000 if they force or allow an employee who needs to self-isolate to come into work.
Make sure staff don’t hide coronavirus symptoms
It’s crucial that your employees feel confident coming forward if they have coronavirus symptoms.
Some people may feel under pressure to prove themselves or make up for lost time if they were furloughed. If you’re short-staffed, employees may worry that they’re “letting the side down” by taking time off. These concerns, if not addressed, can result in staff members hiding or playing down symptoms.
Make it clear that your priority is the health and safety of your employees. Reinforce that people should stay at home if it’s not safe for them to come into work.
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How to prepare for remote working
As an employer, you’re responsible for the health and safety of employees when they’re working from home. While you can’t assess home workstations yourself, you should still check that each employee:
- Feels comfortable carrying out their work from home
- Has enough support from their manager to help them adapt to their new work environment
- Has the equipment they need to work from home. This could include physical equipment like a computer screen and desk chair or access to online communication tools like Microsoft Teams
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has a template questionnaire you can use to prepare for remote working.
Looking after employee mental health
Many people have felt stress and a lack of motivation or purpose during the coronavirus crisis. Your employees may also be worried about their job security, changing work roles or working alone for a long period of time.
It’s not always clear if someone’s suffering from a mental health problem, particularly if they’re working remotely and you don’t have much contact with them. However, potential signs of poor mental health include:
- An increase in absences or being late to work
- Seeming tired, anxious or distracted
- Disengagement with tasks they previously enjoyed
- Changes in behaviour or how they speak to colleagues
Try to create an open environment where employees feel comfortable enough to express how they’re feeling. Being honest about your own concerns and what you’re doing to improve your mental health right now can give others the courage to open up.
If possible, managers should check in with staff members and ask how they’re feeling every day – these personal conversations are just as important as work ones.
When The Wow Company asked staff to work from home in March, co-founder Paul Bulpitt worried about the mental health of employees working alone during the crisis.
“We’ve got a bunch of humans who are working from home, often dealing with childcare and health concerns, whether that’s concerns about family members getting the virus or people actually losing loved ones. As an organisation, how can we best support those people?” he said.
Paul instituted a buddy system to provide everyone with human contact at the start of the day. People check in with their buddy for half an hour every morning, which helps to mimic the natural conversations people have when they arrive at the office.
Make sure you’re still looking out for the mental health of furloughed employees too. Arranging weekly phone calls with managers and keeping them involved in the social side of the business can prevent frustration and resentment from developing.
A non-work WhatsApp group is useful for this – ban all work conversations and encourage people to send pictures of their pets or chat about TV shows.
Maintaining a work-life balance
Remote working can give staff members extra flexibility around how, when and where they work. However, it can be harder to maintain a work-life balance when the edges between the two blur.
Having a set workstation and regular hours will help employees regain a sense of normality around their work day. Encourage them to stick to routines wherever possible – working longer hours or in evenings can lead to a lack of productivity and eventual burnout.
It’s difficult to plan ahead during the crisis, but make sure you’re still setting targets for employees to work towards. This can provide a sense of direction and purpose, and prevent listlessness from setting in.
You can also promote healthy activities amongst staff, for example:
- Speaking to colleagues every day
- Taking regular short breaks from looking at screens
- Planning out what they will work on each week
- Staying active and exercising
For more advice on creating a safe, supportive and productive work environment during the crisis, download our expert guide to staff wellbeing and workplace engagement.