By Melanie Lawson, Director of Wellbeing and People, Brand Advance
Boris’s announcement, of a roadmap out of lockdown, on 22 February was welcomed by some but met with trepidation by others. Brand Advance’s CEO, Christopher Kenna, and many others on the team, were delighted by the prospect of returning to the office; excited to see familiar faces and meet new members of the team, employed during lockdown, in person. But there were also some members of the team who were afraid of returning and potentially putting themselves, and others, at risk.
The Brand Advance Group had to think, long and hard, about how we might manage, and meet, the needs of all staff and consider different perspectives, when planning a return to the office. We were acutely aware that many of our employees were desperate to get back normal. Some were living in shared houses, studio flats or with a family in limited space; working from bedrooms, living alone, feeling ‘Zoomed out’ or socially isolated.
Last week, Nuffield Health reported that around 80% of British people, working from home, feel that lockdown has had a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing; a quarter stated that the emotional challenge of isolation was a major concern to them. The Office of National Statistics found that there has been a significant increase in anxiety for those who are married or in civil partnerships through the period.
At first glance, there appeared to be a strong case for returning to work as soon as it was safe to do so but, it became clear, that some members of staff were more reticent about coming back; scared that they are going to put themselves, and others, at risk or at the prospect of relinquishing less hectic lives, in which they were getting outside more, walking, appreciating nature and spending more time with immediate family. With these two opposing positions in mind, Brand Advance believed that, as a duty of care to all, it had to try to navigate to a position where all staff could be catered for, with an emphasis on helping those who were struggling the most.
We took the bold decision to open up and return to our office on 29 March 2021. After careful thought and consideration we wanted to give our staff a choice.; a welcome relief for those who wanted a complete return to normality, for them working from home indefinitely was not an option—anxiety, stress, backache, minimal social interaction, reduced collaboration and affiliation, lack of friendship and a reduced sense of belonging had all kicked in—they wanted to head back to the office, fast!
‘1 in 5 people that work had been significantly affected because they were finding working from home difficult ‘
The Office of National Statistics
So after careful consideration, we made plans to welcome staff back to the office. We were lucky, in that our offices at Tobacco Dock are sufficiently spacious, to be able to maintain social distancing and offer reassurance to those wanting to return. After extensive risk assessment and consultation we issued guidance for those staff who wanted to return, whilst making sure that we did not exert any pressure on those who were more nervous about it.
For those of us who returned, it was like a breath of fresh air!
One member of the team confessed: ‘I’m delighted at meeting new people and seeing familiar faces that do not belong to other members of my family.’
Another said: ’I just needed to get out of my bedroom and get a routine again’.
A new member of staff admitted: ‘I was desperate to get into the office and show my personality; it’s very hard to do that over Zoom.’
Whilst another member of staff confessed to having ‘organisation anxiety’ at home; the inability to spontaneously ask people questions and a feeling that they had to constantly prove they were working.
To regain a sense of camaraderie and create a sense of fun and liberation, for those who opted in, we organised a celebratory lunch, where staff, having been given a choice of food, opted for Burgers. So, with the aid of Deliveroo, with the sun shining, we all reconnected for some outside dining. Lockdown working seemed a thing of the past. All agreed that something as simple as celebratory lunch allowed us to connect again as a team, in ways that Zoom and Google Meet could never do.
So, I guess our experience of returning to the office was a positive one. There were, and still are, concerns about commuting and social distancing etc. but, with understanding and by allowing staff the freedom to take that step for themselves when they were ready, we, as a company, made an important first step out of lockdown.
As individuals, each of us have made a personal journey through the pandemic and inevitably, we will have to make our own way out of it however, if companies, can show understanding of how the lockdown landscape differs for all, listen, re-assure, and accommodate those who are less at ease with returning to the office, we may all get to the other side of lockdown more connected and understanding of each other than before.
However, a ‘celebratory lunch’ with burgers, a dose of sun, and laughter may help; while remaining socially distanced, of course!