Alison Benny, founder of Enlighten HR, considers how HR can manage the new normal of variable and mixed work patterns

Surely the one thing that is certain in this uncertain world, and on which we can all agree, is that the world of work has changed and is unlikely ever to be the same again.

Many employers, whilst fighting for the very survival of their businesses, have taken the opportunity during lockdown to review their business strategy and working practices. Whilst many employers were previously reluctant to encourage, or even agree to, homeworking, for many this became the “new normal” and, it would seem, in most cases, proved that the concept can work successfully for both employer and employee. Now that things appear to be returning to “normal”, whatever that may be in the future, it is unlikely to ever be completely the same “normal” as before the pandemic. Many employers are looking at homeworking to cut costs by reducing or doing away with the need for office space, either by changing their whole workforce to homeworking or to hotdesking.

What does this mean for the future of work and what is the potential impact on the business and individuals? Who is going to struggle most with this change and how can business manage and mitigate the challenges?

HR’s role in this change is likely to be crucial in identifying and providing the support and structure that managers and team members will need in making this change.  Homeworking, for the long-term, whether full-time or part-time is not simply a case of providing an employee with a laptop and releasing them into the “wild”.  Employers remain responsible for the health, safety and wellbeing of their workers, wherever they work. There is a responsibility to ensure that homeworking employees have suitable working environments; working propped up on a stool at your breakfast bar may have been fine during lockdown, but is not satisfactory or acceptable for long-term working.

HR will have a responsibility to ensure that homeworking employees are provided with appropriate office facilities, desk, chair, workstation assessments, internet connection, screens, computer and so on; should the business consider a homeworking grant to facilitate this? Mechanisms for communication and performance management will be different; managers and their teams will need training and support on how this will work.

The psychological impact of homeworking is not to be taken lightly either. For some homeworking is a dream come true, for others it is isolating and confining. The personality and personal circumstances of the individual will be key to deciding whether homeworking is an option at all, occasional, part-time or full-time. Being able to provide a range of options to suit individuals is likely to provide the most successful outcomes. HR will also need to consider the personality factors which best suit the “new normal” when recruiting. Resilience, self-motivation, ability to work unsupervised, outside of a sociable office environment may all become crucial factors.

Whilst some employees will be simply desperate to return to the workplace, others will be fearful and trepidatious; HR will need to be at the forefront of ensuring health, safety and wellbeing on their return to work. Communication will be vital to check on mental health; what pressures are our employees facing at home? How do they feel about returning to the workplace? What support do they need to return successfully? Do they need some flexibility in their return? Does it need to be phased over a period of time?

Planning for the return of employees, completing risk assessments, setting out expectations of behaviour (and the consequences of non-compliance) will be vital. Inducting employees prior to their return will assist in managing the fear some may feel, the steps taken to minimise risk, reassurance on how social distancing will be managed and maintained for example. Reporting instances of possible contact with the virus and systems for self-isolation will be vital. Employees should be made to feel trusted and supported as they return to work, whether homeworking or in the workplace. Excellent workplace employee relations have never been more important and HR should, and must, lead the way.