This article was first published in the June 2020 UK edition of
Accounting and Business magazine.

Having survived the first phase of the crisis, when employees have been asked to work from home where possible, as well as tough decisions on whether to furlough individuals, managers are now looking to the future. They know that the lockdown will eventually be lifted, but have no idea how this will affect the continuity of their operations.

This known unknown will inevitably create the need for managers to plan for a number of different scenarios, and to be prepared for each one in the same way they responded to the initial lockdown through their business continuity plans. ‘Re-boarding’ employees, either from homeworking or a furloughed position, will require managerial skills that have simply not been used before – everyone will have their own individual set of circumstances and experiences, requiring managers to fine-tune their empathetic skills.

So how are firms developing their own strategies? ‘It is a cliché to say that communication matters, but in the case of returning to work after Covid-19, it is the listening part of communication that will matter the most,’ says Dr Rob Yeung, business psychologist at consultancy Talentspace. ‘Managers must invest considerable time in asking people about their concerns, particularly about their physical health and safety. It could literally be a case of life and death, so it is imperative that managers do not assume they have done enough to safeguard people’s health.

‘Until you can demonstrate to people that you have taken real action to safeguard their physical health, you cannot begin to deal with any atmosphere of anxiety and fretfulness.’

Geraldine Gallacher, managing director of the Executive Coaching Consultancy, agrees: ‘Coming back is a lot harder than people might think,’ she says. ‘The older generation may have been the most obviously vulnerable, but the lockdown will have had a significant impact on younger generations and parents with young children. Managers can fall into the trap of generalising, so it is important that they don’t assume everyone’s experience has been the same.’

Get personal

With this in mind, Gallacher suggests that when managers begin to bring their teams back together again, they will need to focus on their emotional intelligence, and check in with people at an individual level to find out how they are and what they have learnt during the lockdown period. ‘Video calls have increased levels of empathy, in that you can see particular circumstances of individual team members and see how they have reacted to the current situation,’ she says.

This individualistic approach will be very important in building empathy and demonstrating that the business cares about its people. Businesses need to plan on the basis that everyone will have different requirements, hopes and fears.

As Yeung says: ‘There is incredible individual variation in people’s ability to bounce back after adverse situations. Past research shows that even after devastating hurricanes and tsunamis, some individuals cope very well while others may be affected to varying degrees. It will be important to assess the needs of individuals rather than assuming that everybody will have the same issues or treating them all as some homogeneous group.’

Yeung urges businesses not to make any assumptions when planning for the return to work. ‘Ask people how they are, share some of your own concerns and vulnerability, be patient and give people time to tell you or show you through their behaviour what they may need from you,’ he says.

And there will be a need to allow for adjustments as people return to work – it will not be the same as before. As Yeung says: ‘Suppliers may have gone bust or remaining customers may be reluctant to place new orders, for example. So managers will have to accept that employees will not always be able to get the same results as before. It is not enough merely for managers to have empathy for their people’s concerns; they must show through their actual behaviour that their employees really matter.’

New working models

Many will have experienced homeworking for the first time, while others could have been working in this way for some time prior to the lockdown. So people’s experiences will be different, as indeed will be those of the businesses themselves. This could create additional pressures to create a ‘new normal’ of remote working.

Alastair Barlow FCCA, founder of accountancy firm Flindr, is well used to flexible working, but the lockdown has still raised questions. ‘At any one time, a third would be at client sites, a third in the office and a third working from home. But even with our model, it’s made us question whether we need an office the size we have and whether we should operate even more of a hotelling system than we did previously. We will undoubtedly see a greater proportion embrace remote working, although, face-to-face social interaction is still important – there has to be a balance.’

Ultimately, much will depend on how how the lifting of the lockdown is rolled out. Experiences from other countries can help us understand some of the challenges businesses and their staff may face.

Philip Smith, journalist