Employees will likely have a range of reactions to a return to the office © Getty Images
Employees will likely have a range of reactions to a return to the office © Getty Images

How CPOs should prepare for the office return

7 May 2021

Ever since procurement professionals were forced to begin working from home over a year ago, there have been questions about what the return to the office will look like. 

Banking group Goldman Sachs has called on its workers to “make plans to be in a position to return to the office” by 14 June in the US, with the firm’s chief executive branding working from home an “aberration”. 

However 50 of the UK’s largest employers have said they do not plan to bring staff back to the office full-time. Danny Harmer, chief people officer at Aviva, told the BBC 95% of the insurance firms’ workers said they would like to be able to spend some of their time working flexibly and remotely in different locations.

With social distancing measures currently set to end on 21 June in the UK, CPOs can expect a range of reactions to the big return, whatever form it takes. 

Gary Cookson, director at Epic HR, told SM: “There are many employees who simply cannot wait to get back to the office, and for a variety of reasons. Some people really need the company of others, and some people haven’t got an appropriate set-up at home. Those people – and there are lots of them – will be chomping at the bit to get back.”

However, Cookson added that some will be more hesitant about the prospect of heading back to the workplace after over a year at home. 

He said: “Many people thrive on their own, and are happy working remotely as they get their best work done solo and without distractions. Many others have a superb set-up at home that betters the office.

“Some others have simply got used to not using their valuable time to commute to an office on crowded roads and public transport and have got new routines, which commuting would negatively disrupt.

“Some others are nervous of close contact with lots of people, whether on the way to or at work.”

Cookson advised CPOs to talk to staff to gauge reactions and to “take it slow”.

“What should be avoided is a big bang approach. Set a date when people can return, not necessarily when they will. Allow employees to have a lot of say in when they choose to return and in what proportions,” he said.

“Managers themselves are also employees and affected in the same way as everyone – they won’t have all the answers, and it is a good thing to say so and to open up about their own hopes and fears too. 

“Unlike the departure from the office in March 2020 which came on everyone really fast with hardly any thinking time, this time round we have lots of thinking time and can, and should, take it slow.”

Zofia Bajorek, research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies agreed employee consultation is key when it comes to planning a way back to the office to alleviate employee anxieties.

“Employees circumstances may have changed during the lockdowns. Some may have developed health conditions, some long-term health conditions may have worsened due to limited access to treatments, and some may have gained caring responsibilities which could all could make a return to the workplace more difficult,” she told SM

“Now really is the time for line managers to start having conversations with employees about their thoughts about returning to work, and what management expectations are – and how the two could be matched to benefit everyone.”

Becky Frankiewicz, president of staffing firm Manpower Group North America told SM flexible working is likely to be here to stay, so CPOs must “value performance over presenteeism” going forward.

“Rather than measuring employees based on the number of hours clocked in the workplace, remote work forces companies to look at results over politics and presenteeism,” she said. 

“This empowers employees to own their day so people will no longer feel disadvantaged by the choice between dropping the kids off at school and being physically in attendance in the office for an 8.30am conference call.” 

Instead work, contributions, and skills will be the currency.

“The crisis has allowed us to truly bring our whole selves to work. From kids to pets to normal life activities, working at home has opened up our homes to work. Step forward into our newfound humanity and keep the newfound intimacy with the workforce,” she said. 

“Bring the best of home 'back' to work. Remember that culture is not contained inside a building, culture is nurtured inside people. As we return to the building, keep the culture in the people and the building will be a great place to celebrate it.”

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