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With Boris Johnson announcing plans to transition from a policy of #stayathome to #stayalert we share our thinking to people practitioners creating a new organisational normal.

The announcements signal the start of moving out of the lockdown restrictions to the economy opening for business again whilst ensuring sufficient safeguarding measures are in place to minimise the spread of COVID-19, protecting the most vulnerable members of our community and with the warning that more restrictive measures will be introduced if the infection rate increases.

Over the last 6 weeks of the lockdown, we’ve used our experience and knowledge of the boundaries and dynamics between working lives and home/family lives to deliver a series of wellbeing webinars for our clients specifically supporting employees who are working from home and those furloughed.

Whilst government advice is to continue to work from home where possible, there are clearly many roles where working from home is not possible.  Returning to work, albeit with social distancing measures in place, for non-key workers is being allowed, with a backlash from Trade Unions claiming there isn’t sufficient guidance to guarantee safety.

Here are our thoughts on issues that need to be considered at this time, especially focusing on the mental health and wellbeing of employees.

Emotional responses

There will be a range of emotional responses to the return to work message. The Kübler-Ross Change Curve has been cited many times through the pandemic outbreak, bringing insight into why individuals might be behaving and reacting in different ways – whether through denial, anger, bargaining (negotiating), depression or acceptance.

Ideally a comprehensive return to work plan will:

  • anticipate all of these emotional responses
  • prepare line managers for handling these emotional responses to reduce dispute escalation, strengthen engagement and encourage productivity
  • support employees to reach acceptance at their own pace.

Individual circumstances

A metaphor that we’ve found particularly helpful through the pandemic outbreak is the notion that we are all in the same storm, but on different ships.  Whilst we’ve all had our lives restricted, some individuals have been more deeply impacted by the pandemic than others, especially:

  • people that have become very ill with the virus
  • parents & carers combining home-schooling & caregiving perhaps alongside working from home
  • pregnant employees
  • people struggling to cope with isolation and lockdown measures
  • people with existing and underlying health conditions
  • people sadly losing close family and friends to the virus

This will mean some employees will be unavailable to work or unable to return to a workplace.  Good employers will ensure personal circumstances are taken into account, employment legislation followed as a minimum standard and provisions enhanced where possible to ensure that employees and their personal circumstances are supported at this time.  Demonstrating flexibility and offering choice, where possible, is key.

Practically: Making reasonable adjustments, taking the opportunity for redeployment and continuing to support those that are unable to work due to their caring responsibilities, health needs and shielding requirements as well as conducting full H&S risk assessments and introducing social distancing measures and/or personal protective equipment.

Psychologically: We will all have our own lockdown story to share, and whilst we are not all in the same boat, it could be cathartic to have the opportunity to share our own experiences of the lockdown with colleagues to help to build connection, engagement and sense of belonging.

Getting our basic needs met

In our wellbeing webinars we’ve referenced Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – standing the test of time since devising this model of human motivation back in the 1940s.  We all have basic needs and psychological needs to satisfy before we’re able to be fully productive and engaged with work and learning at the level of self-actualisation.

Some or most of our basic human needs have been challenged during the coronavirus pandemic. The fight for the final toilet rolls amongst the empty supermarket shelves being a lasting impression of the collective fear of not having sufficient food and provisions before the lockdown restrictions started; the sleep problems experienced by over 2/3rds the population; the threat to our lives of contracting the deadly virus; the uncertainty over our continued employment prospects and our safety and risk assessment of the people, place and circumstances of our isolation.

All these basic needs have to be satisfied to an acceptable minimum level before we can seek to address our higher psychological needs of belonging, connection and self-esteem – all pre-requisites for a reasonable level of job performance.

Addressing fears

Fear features greatly in our ability to get our different needs met. Fear has a physiological as well as psychological impact on our ability to adjust.  General fears to be addressed as part of a return to work plan include:

  • Returning to normal life
  • Lack of vaccine for the virus
  • Continued risk of infection from an invisible virus
  • Social distancing – adjusting to the loosening of the rules
  • Social anxieties – getting too close to people, learning new social gestures and ways of being with others, dealing with too many people
  • Concern for more vulnerable members of the family/community who need to continue to be shielded
  • Risk of further waves.

Fears are real obstacles to helping individuals to accept the new ways of working.  Each individual will adjust in their own way, over time but it’s important to respect these fears and identify ways to address them as part of your return to work plan. 

Leadership Capability

Leaders and managers will all have their own issues to deal with and different skill levels to cope with managing their people at this time of continued uncertainty.  Leaders and managers will require time, support and resources to enable them to be fully effective.

Helping your leaders create a balance between structure (clarity around rules, routines and expectations) and nurture (compassion, encouragement, empathy and support) to lead a safe and smooth transition back to work – whether returning to the workplace or returning from furlough – requires a range of leadership skills, energy and commitment.

Some leaders will be far better equiped than others to handle this phase.  Refreshing key skills, setting out expectations, mentoring and peer support will all be useful to help navigate the return to work period.

Creating a new future

Isolation has provided ample opportunity for reflection and dreaming.  There’s a general desire to not go back to the way we lived and worked before the outbreak but to move forward towards simpler, calmer living, focusing on what’s really important to each of us.

Here are 3 imperatives to build into creating your future organisation:

    1. 1. Put inclusion and diversity commitment at the centre of organisational change for superior organisational performance and experience. This includes reducing the creation of in-groups and out-groups amongst your employees including essential workers, employees able to work from home and furloughed groups.
    2. 2. Build in additional flexibility and agility to be ready to respond effectively in case of further short-term disruptive impact as the battle against the coronavirus continues, as well as creating a smarter organisation for the future.
      1. 3. Be a values-led organisation, creating a strong, supportive, engaging culture.


Undoubtedly the psychological contract between employer and employees will have been impacted by how individuals and their peers have been treated over the last few months. Personal perspectives will alter depending on perceptions of favourable or unfavourable treatment.

Attending to satisfying basic and psychological needs, accounting for individual circumstances, supporting employees’ mental health and containing fears all contribute to the wellbeing of employees at this unprecedented time.

We strongly recommend putting steps in place to support effective transitions as part of the return to work journey.  To help you we have created 4 return to work webinars that can be tailored specifically to your organisational needs:

Return to work webinars

Contact Nishi Mehta for further details.

CM Talent helps employers to attract, retain and develop gender-balanced teams.   Its sister business, Career-Mums – return to work experts – is a social enterprise supporting parents back to the workplace following a career break as part of a mission to inspire and develop #morewomenleaders.  

Using a combination of experiences gained from organisational development, psychology, leadership development coaching and supporting parents in the workplace, the CM Talent team are ideally positioned to support your return to work plan.