The return to work after COVID-19 is a much-anticipated milestone. Many businesses are considering a move back to the workplace around the world – but they may have to wait a bit longer before it can actually happen.
The measures your company can contemplate will depend on where in the world your staff are located. Whether you’re planning a phased return to work or an imminent office reopening, there are several factors to consider, including managing outbreaks, vaccine policies and new ways of working.
If you are an employee, you should keeping working at home until final restrictions in your country are removed.
Why does government want people back in the office?
Government wants to help companies which have suffered during lockdown, including those in city centres which rely on office workers.
Current guidance varies by region, making the role of managing an expatriate workforce more complex.
In Australia, for instance, the state of Victoria relaxed measures in March 2021 to remove the cap on office worker numbers. However, there still need to be at least two square metres of space per person.
In Taiwan, most staff were back in the office by July 2020, but in countries such as France a growth of infections means new restrictions are being imposed.
The picture varies considerably and can change quickly.
What are the UK government guidelines for returning to work during COVID-19?
The UK government’s return to work guidelines state that offices and contact centres can be open throughout all stages of lockdown easing in 2021, as long as they are ‘COVID-secure’. This means undertaking measures including a risk assessment, social distancing enforcement and cleaning, for instance.
Despite this allowance, the rules are more complex than they initially appear – UK employees who can work from home should still do so under the current rules.
Even when the lifting of restrictions does happen, life in the workplace may be affected the findings of a review into social distancing.
Where are you supposed to be working?
During the latest pause in lockdown easing in England, everyone who can work from home should still do so. If your job can’t be done from home, you can travel into the workplace, unless:
- You’re self-isolating because you have coronavirus symptoms
- You’ve been in contact with someone who has tested positive
- You’re in quarantine after travelling abroad
Can you return to work after a negative COVID test?
The Public Health Agency (PHA) has advised that employers should support their employees who need to comply with COVID-19 public health self-isolation guidelines.
Self-isolation can end when a person does not pose a risk of infecting others. Therefore, an employee with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 can return to work 10 full days after the date their symptoms started if they feel well enough and provided they have not had a high temperature for at least 48 hours (without taking medicines to treat a high temperature); and even if they still have a cough or loss of sense of smell/taste, as these symptoms can last for several weeks after the infection has gone.
If they still have a high temperature they should continue to stay at home and seek medical advice. If they were asymptomatic when they tested positive, they can return to work 10 full days after the date of the test.
If an employee’s test is negative they can stop self-isolating and return to work as long as they feel well enough, have not had a high temperature for at least 48 hours and provided that they are not a close contact of a confirmed case and that anyone they live with who has symptoms of COVID-19 has tested negative. If they develop new or worsening symptoms they should continue to self-isolate and arrange a further test.
Half of Britons will find it hard to adjust to the post-pandemic life
For human resources (HR) professionals working across borders, all this complexity brings tough decisions which are personal to each business.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) suggests using three key tests to determine if returning to the workplace is right for your organisation. These are:
- Is it essential?
- Is it sufficiently safe?
- Is it mutually agreed?
On a practical level, this means considering if your expats really do need face-to-face contact or if they could perform a version of their role remotely. It also means digging into the specifics at each place of work and asking employees how they feel.
Head of HR at William Russell
A return to the office could come with bumps in the road, too, and opening safely doesn’t necessarily mean there’ll be no risk. Any manager responsible for overseeing this new normal might need to deal with outbreaks and support self-isolating staff.
Maintaining social distancing at work
Another consideration is the importance of maintaining social distance and the measures you might need to put in place to make this easier for expats.
According to the Health and Safety Executive, signage and tape can be useful measures to maintain social distancing. You might consider asking a local employee to cordon off sinks, bathroom cubicles and kitchen areas that might otherwise become crowded.
Communication can also be a valuable tool. Keep sending reminders and ask staff on the ground to report back with any concerns.
Investing in personal protective equipment (PPE) before your return to work
Distance may not always be achievable, so consider the additional kit you may need to purchase. This might include high-grade masks, visors, gloves and even goggles.
These items are known to be more important in certain industries, but they may also have a greater role to play in regions where expats are still largely working in shared offices and taking public transport.
Providing protective kit could also be a simple gesture to let expats know you care about their welfare – even from afar.
To plan for a return to the office safely as the pandemic eases, you might wish to consider using this example checklist:
- Make a risk assessment – the Health and Safety Executive has a handy COVID-19 risk assessment guide.
- Create a return to the office plan – if it’s deemed right for your business. You may wish to consider office layout and capacity, appropriate signage and external factors, such as employee travel plans.
- Communicate your plans – people like to be kept in the loop, especially in an international context, so send regular updates and ask expats for their views.
- Monitor the situation – if the pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that life can change fast, so it’s best to keep monitoring the situation. It might be that a local outbreak puts your decision on ice, or perhaps you’ll need to reverse a call if measures are proving difficult for employees to follow.
Lifestyle ambitions are increasingly important in the professional world, so management teams may wish to consider these factors as part of their return to work strategy.
Expats are likely to value travel opportunities and experiences – including the opportunity to be immersed in a new culture – so may be particularly keen to embrace a new normal, whatever this may look like.
Mental wellbeing has become a particular concern during the pandemic for both remote teams and key workers – 65% of people say their mental health has been negatively impacted by the pandemic.
According to our recent mental health report, expats feel the need to discuss mental health more.
For high-risk employees, returning to work may be more complex, so a personalised and empowered approach is usually better than top-down enforcement. You might like to offer flexibility to employees with certain health conditions or personal circumstances.
Of course, COVID-secure office policies are not the only way to support employees. International health insurance is a common employee benefit for expats – and it can also bring reassurance in uncertain times.