How to keep your staff safe without treating them like robots - or MPs

The “Mogg Conga” is a prime example of how not to get staff back in the office.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 10 Jun 2020

As the UK emerges from a coronavirus-induced lockdown, office doors around the country will tentatively begin to creak open. According to the most recent fortnightly business survey from the ONS, 25 per cent of firms currently closed are planning to reopen within the next month. Although you’d hope they’d handle it better than the House of Commons did. 

The venerable institution’s recent 90-minute long, 527-person queue of MPs - snaking through the parliamentary lobbies, under Westminster Bridge Road and through Portcullis House - caused even the most sceptical political commentator to double-take. 

It was a solution that enabled MPs to “return to work safely ASAP,” said leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg, in order to conduct business that was “not fully possible from our homes.” 

The line itself, which has been branded as “farcical” by various MPs and at times allegedly came close to breaching the government’s own social distancing advice, is likely to be scrapped in favour of more efficient voting methods. But the reason they were queuing - to vote on whether to end the virtual voting system they’ve been using - was if anything even more controversial. 

MPs indeed did decide to end the system, requiring votes to be cast in person again. Yet this excludes pregnant members, those with long-term health conditions and those living with vulnerable people - a total of 250 MPs, according to Sky News

MPs can perhaps be expected to sacrifice more than most in the name of public service, but as Labour’s Lyn Brown says, there are limits. 

“I won’t accept the implication that I should be ‘brave’ and go into a workplace that is unsafe because the government is happy for it to stay that way,” the MP for West Ham told The New Statesman. A YouGov poll of 1,000 adults conducted by the CIPD found that two in five staff are feeling anxious about the prospect of returning to work

Companies that get it wrong risk alienating or potentially losing staff. PCS, the union representing parliamentary workers including clerks and kitchen staff, is believed to have considered balloting members over potential strike action, according to The Guardian

“If you have remote workers who return to the office environment, expect to see some degree of permanent change in their attitudes and needs,” says Naeema Pasha, director of Henley Careers, Henley Business School, alongside the publication of a special report into managing remote teams from the fintech firm Soldo. 

It’s a process that needs to be handled sensitively. Expecting staff to fall back into normal routines and practices, albeit socially distanced, may not be possible for quite some time - if ever - and there is no blanket approach. 

“Some will ask whether the business needs everyone in the workplace at the same time. Equally, others will never want to work from home again,” adds Pasha. 

For the time being, it’s likely that employees, in a bid to quell nerves, will be happy to accept the greater levels of control that companies will exert on their behaviours in the office. The government’s COVID-secure guidelines, for example, require firms to enforce heightened hygiene standards and social distancing where possible, and few would argue with that. 

Putting people first

In Parliament’s case, the government has since U-turned, allowing shielding MPs to vote via proxy - but it could all have been avoided. 

Getting this transition right comes down to putting your people at the heart of your policies. 

The firms that have managed to maintain a human focus throughout the crisis have generally done two things brilliantly, says Rob Cross, CEO of change consultancy Muru Leadership

The first is they’ve made sure their people know what actions are being taken, whilst giving staff a voice in the process. The second is they’ve treated people like humans, not robots. 

“They’ve been empathetic, recognising the challenges this crisis has created for their staff and they’ve given them space and freedom to not only do their job but also juggle the other priorities they have,” adds Cross. 

It’s that need for sensitivity and balance that means for some there may never be a permanent return to the office. For many, the last three months will have put to bed the notion that staff need to be in the office in order to do their best work. 

While flexible working comes with its own problems, it’s plausible that the COVID lockdown of 2020 will commence a new era of hybrid organisations, with some degree of home working normalised alongside collaborative stints in the office. If done well, it could be the best of both worlds.

It’s a shame perhaps that Parliament was so keen to return so quickly to the way things were before.

Image credit: JUSTIN TALLIS / Contributor via Getty Images.

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