For the last three weeks, the facilities manager for a large tech company headquartered in one of Dublin’s business parks has been giving the company’s premises a major makeover to meet socially distancing protocols. Perspex screens and banks of sanitisers have been fitted, lifts have been reprogrammed to stop at each floor, casual seating has been removed and, where possible, doors are now automatic.
Meanwhile, her colleagues in HR and health and safety have been looking at reducing the number of people in the building at any one time by changing shift patterns, staggering working hours and having different groups coming in on different days.
The logistics team is also working on ways of getting people to the office as public transport and feeder buses to the estate will have vastly reduced capacity.
Returning to work is not simply a matter of flicking the light switch. The business models and working patterns of many organisations have changed, maybe forever. And on top of the logistical hassles of the great return, companies will have to be mindful of the personal fallout from coronavirus as employees deal with the psychological and material consequences of enforced social isolation.
The United Nations has warned that the pandemic risks sparking a major global mental health crisis and that, even when the situation is brought under control, grief, anxiety and depression will continue to affect people and communities.
Closer to home, a survey published by LinkedIn last week showed that 41 per cent of a sample of 2,000 Irish workers are worried they will be made redundant as a consequence of the pandemic.
"Return to work is about so much more than safety procedures. Employee welfare has to be at the forefront of reopening planning," says Martina Donohoe, quality and safety director for the food services company Aramark in northern Europe.
"In their eagerness to reopen, businesses may forget that employee and customer well-being is not just about the physical risk, it also includes mental health strain, anxiety and worry. Particularly with larger workforces like ours [Aramark employs 5,000 people in Ireland alone], it's likely that some employees will have suffered bereavement, illness or loss of income, either among their immediate family or close friends. This is a huge burden to bear as they return to the 'new normal'.
“In Aramark, we are extending our EAP [employee assistance programme] and putting a big emphasis on mental health and well-being and reassuring people that it’s okay to feel anxious or worried.”
Aramark is a multinational business with more than 275,000 staff worldwide and its Irish managers benefited from the experience of colleagues in other jurisdictions who felt the impact of coronavirus before we did. The Irish crisis-management team mobilised in January and Donohoe says that, having had previous experience of major international public health crises – such as swine flu – the company had acted quickly.
Its challenges were compounded by the fact that it couldn’t simply shut down as it provides essential services to critical facilities such as hospitals.
“Food is a significant part of our business in Ireland and we had to adjust very quickly to new ways of working in front and back of house,” Donohue says. “We have a dual responsibility to keep our employees and our customers safe and we see the communication of clear information about safety and infection control as hugely important.
“Operating through the crisis has been beneficial in one way as we are now well ahead in terms of getting the necessary protocols up and running within our business. We addressed issues around splitting and staggering shifts for our employees and implementing measures, such as the staggered use of restaurant facilities, to keep our customers safe too.
“It’s very important to build the trust of both staff and customers in the safety measures you have taken.”
Donohoe points out that apart from having an obligation to implement current World Health Organisation (WHO) and Irish Government health and safety guidelines, companies need to keep on their toes as it is likely protocols will change as new information emerges.
“If safety hasn’t been a huge priority before, it must be now,” she says. “This is best achieved through consistency, transparency and conversations around the topic of safety that extend far beyond protocols and procedures.”
Finian Buckley, professor of work and organisational psychology at DCU's business school, says it is crucial that chief executives hit the right note when addressing returning staff.
“Compassion and empathy need to be to the forefront of any welcome back. Employees need to know there is an understanding of what they have been through and that their organisation is putting them first as the business reopens,” he says.
“If people don’t feel comfortable and safe, productivity and engagement will be affected. All of those in leadership positions will need to be more tuned in to how their people are doing. This may mean checking in with them more regularly or giving them leeway to get the job done in their own time.
“Stress has affected us all during this crisis and organisations need to plan their reopenings to take account of what’s going on in the background for many people,” he adds. “This needs to be a cross-functional exercise, based both on health and governmental advice and on best practice from businesses elsewhere that have already reopened successfully.”