How to manage when staff don’t want to return to work

Wednesday September 1, 2021

With COVID-19 restrictions now relaxed, attention for many employers has turned to getting business back to some sort of normality. A fundamental part of this may involve bringing staff back to the workplace.

Some employees will be pleased to hear that you have set a date for when they can return to work, others may have questions or even objections.

For a smooth transition back to the workplace, it’s best to prepare for every eventuality.

When staff members voice their concerns over your plans, it’s important to listen and seek understanding, but also to know the steps that you can take to move forwards.

Understanding objections to return to work

There are a number of reasons why staff may object to returning to the workplace. Each instance should be assessed on its own specific circumstances, but the following may help you to prepare.

For example, some employees may have a genuine fear of catching coronavirus. The vaccine rollout has helped to boost confidence in the reopening of society. However, not everyone has been vaccinated; and the virus still poses a risk, albeit considerably reduced, to those who have.

Employees expressing concerns over their safety, or the safety of others, is serious. Reassuring your team of the safety measures that you have taken prior to bringing them back to work can help to address their concerns. Sharing the risk assessments you have done will demonstrate the steps you have taken to minimise the risks. Staff should only be returning if the workplace is COVID secure after all.

Separately, you may find that some members of your team are less enthused about returning simply because they prefer working from home. They may suggest that they have been productive this past year and that this has proven remote working is possible.

These employees are unlikely to be missing their morning commute and may have a long list of reasons why they think they should be allowed to continue to work from home.

If your workplace is COVID secure, it is ultimately up to you if and when staff return to the workplace unless the government has advised otherwise. You will, though, want your team to be onboard with this to be able to get back to business with the least disruption possible.

Managing objections to return to work

Good communication and planning are key to the success of this process. If you can, it’s wise to put some feelers out on a one-to-one basis before bringing employees back in.

Encouraging your managers to have informal chats with their team members, loosely based around a return-to-work interview format, can help them to collate valuable feedback for you.

This gives you the opportunity to learn who may not be ready to return and why. You then have a chance to address such concerns before you reveal your plans to the wider team. Whilst you may not be able to appease everyone, you can highlight the reasons why you need staff attending the workplace and any benefits, such as enhanced collaboration or opportunities for socials and team building.

For those who have been working remotely for over a year, the thought of returning to the office may be daunting. To help with this, consider phases back to the workplace. A slower re-introduction may show them it’s not as bad as they had anticipated. It can also help you to make any necessary improvements before everyone returns full time.

It’s possible you’ll see an influx of flexible working requests during this time. You may have already ruled out the continuation of remote working for now, but could flexi-hours work? If the rush-hour commute can be avoided, staff may be more onboard with returning when you need them to.

Remember that flexible working is not currently a legal entitlement. However, those with sufficient length of continuous service do have the right to request it. There is a process, including a time frame for replying to a request, that must be followed.

If, after all your efforts to considerately bring staff back, you still receive some push back, you may need to pursue disciplinary action. If a situation looks like it is leaning this way, we suggest seeking professional HR advice.

Planning for the future

Although you may prefer to have staff attend the workplace, it’s worth noting that hybrid and remote working are fast becoming desirable employee benefits in the post-pandemic landscape. Companies that embrace flexible working are likely to see good employee retention rates and have an advantage when competing for top talent.

If you’d like to discuss hybrid working in more detail to see if it can work for you in the future, or need help managing your return-to-work process, remember that we are here to help.

Preventing People Problems

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