By Anna Codrea-Rado, Contributor
How do you make staff feel comfortable returning to work while there’s no vaccine for COVID-19? That’s the question business leaders across Europe are asking themselves as companies begin a phased reopening—and reimagining—of workplaces across the continent.
Business leaders are balancing the need to kickstart the economy while prioritizing public health as a matter of paramount safety. By following government guidelines and embracing compassionate leadership, companies across Europe are navigating the difficult exit out of lockdown and back to the office.
“Employees not just being safe but feeling safe is our absolute number one priority as we look to return, and that example comes from the top,” Nabila Salem, president of cloud talent company Revolent Group, says.
“Employees not just being safe but feeling safe is our absolute number one priority as we look to return, and that example comes from the top.”
—Nabila Salem, president, Revolent Group
The company, which has offices in Europe, North America, and Australia, has told employees they won’t have to return to the office at all this year if they don’t want to and those who do can choose how often they come in. A study from ManPowerGroup found that U.K. and U.S. workers are among the most nervous about returning to work, with nearly three-quarters saying they feel negatively about it.
“You can set out as many provisions as possible, but it’s important to respect people’s circumstances and choices and make sure they have the support surrounding that decision,” Salem says.
In April, the executive branch of the European Union, the European Commission, issued guidelines for helping companies get back to work safely. The plan laid out the conditions that needed to be met to ease restrictions and allow a phased return to work. The Commission also said that until there is a vaccine for COVID-19, companies and workers will not be able to return to business as usual.
Spain, Austria, and Denmark were among the first European countries to return to work after their national government began easing restrictions in mid-April after bringing lockdown measures into place in early March. The eurozone’s largest economy, Germany, reopened shortly afterward when Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that smaller shops were allowed to reopen if they could enforce appropriate social distancing. France began its easing of lockdown in May.
Despite British Prime Minister Boris Johnson urging a return to work in July, U.K. workers were slower to go back to their offices than their European counterparts. Analysis from Morgan Stanley’s research unit AlphaWise found that only one-third (34 percent) of U.K. employees have gone back to their original location, compared to nearly three-quarters of staff (68 percent) in Germany, Italy, and Spain, and 83 percent in France.
Experts believe the reason for this is twofold. Firstly, the U.K. went into lockdown later than mainland Europe, on March 23, and so eased restrictions later, as well. Secondly, British workers’ attitudes about remote working have changed drastically as a result of the enforced work from home measures. A survey by market research firm YouGov found that commuting was the primary reason for workers wanting to stay remote, with about one-third of employees (30 percent) wanting to reduce the cost of their commute by working from home and 23 percent choosing to work flexibly as they find traveling to the office a waste of time.
The effect of COVID-19 has varied greatly across Europe. Countries including the U.K., Spain, and Italy were initially among the hardest hit by the pandemic, with Eastern Europe faring significantly better. However, a recent surge in cases across the continent have prompted new fears of a second wave. Even within countries, there are wide variations by region, necessitating a localized approach to bringing employees back to their physical buildings.
In a report on preparing Europe for a safe return to work by the consultancy firm McKinsey & Company, one of the recommendations includes devolving decision-making to local leaders. The report stated: “The decisions on which measures to deploy when and where should be made locally—when possible, district by district—because there are material differences in the severity of the crisis and economic circumstances.”
Salem, Revolent Group’s president, said that most of the timing of phasing a return to work has come down to local government advice. The company’s three main locations, the U.K., U.S., and Australia, suffered some of the highest number of COVID-19 cases. Lockdowns and restriction easing have been applied at different times across the regions. “We’ve followed the advice of local authorities—if a government says it’s safe to return, we have to respect that and give our employees the chance to do so if they wish,” she says.
One company leading through the crisis is Nominet, the official registry for U.K. domain names. The register holds more than 11 million domain names, including gov.uk and nhs.uk, the U.K.’s government and healthcare sites, respectively. As such, Nominet is considered critical national infrastructure and throughout the pandemic has been responsible for ensuring that the U.K. stays online.
Nominet’s CEO, Russell Haworth, says that navigating the crisis required clear communication to staff about the safety measures in place to keep workers online and then to later bring them back to the office.
“As a leadership team, we’ve made a conscious effort to give our employees clear guidance on what the business expects from them,” Haworth says. “Making decisions early and implementing them for a set period is important for giving our staff some level of stability and certainty.”
“We have to ensure that we are keeping up morale and support during this time and continue to do so for the benefit of those who are keen to come back to work and also those who aren’t ready yet.”
—Russell Haworth, CEO, Nominet
The company has committed to a phased reopening of its workplaces, limiting those in the office until 2021. Desks are allocated to make sure that they can observe the 6-feet rule and the office is open two days a week with people needing to sign in ahead of time. There are temperature checks on arrival and all staff has been offered a free flu test.
“We will maintain a level of flexibility for employees and we are also committed to ensuring that those who are staying at home do not feel isolated or detached from the rest of the team,” Haworth says. “We have to ensure that we are keeping up morale and support during this time and continue to do so for the benefit of those who are keen to come back to work and also those who aren’t ready yet.”
A Flexible Future
Flexibility is the thread running throughout business leaders’ plans for getting employees back to work. This means not only flexibility in terms of the phased reopening of offices but also the leadership approach.
Salem was only in her role at Revolent a couple of months when the pandemic spread and lockdown measures came into effect. “We’ve all had to adapt and change at the speed of light during this crisis, which has brought with it uncertainty and challenges, as well as highlighting potential and opportunity,” she says.
“In reality, uncertainty is the only certainty. Nothing stays the same forever whether we like it or not, so we must continue to innovate to thrive, not just during this crisis but all the time,” she adds.
At Nominet, Haworth notes that the pandemic has reminded him how much the little things matter. He says: “It’s given us an appreciation for the challenging times many are facing and the disruption it brings, the importance of saying ‘thank you’ and working together as a team. It is certainly a reminder that we’re all human and we’re stronger together.”