Supporting staff and volunteers back to work after COVID-19

Don’t just focus on the policies and procedures, take time to think about the people

With lockdown restrictions being relaxed, and plans for the re-opening of schools and non-essential shops emerging, there’s a palpable shift in focus for many of us. From dealing with the immediate crisis, to preparing for what comes next.

We’re doing it at DSC. Risk assessing our London and Liverpool offices, planning for furloughed staff to return in July, and working out an interim plan for the next few months where we expect to be back to full-strength, but still a long way from business as usual.

The focus has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been about logistics. About things. Reviewing systems, processes, and how the work will get done. Who really needs to be in our offices? How do we make the space safe? What activities will resume when staff come back from furlough, and what do we keep doing remotely? What does our autumn training and events schedule look like, and how will we deliver it?

But being organised and having a plan, although important, isn’t anything like enough to prepare any of us for the coming months.

A few weeks ago there was a really interesting chart going around on social media, basically adapting the “stages of grief” cycle, but illustrating how people are at very different stages of processing and dealing with the pandemic, as well as how differently affected people are.

As employers and leaders we need to be aware of that, of how easy it might be forget that our own experiences might be very different to those of others. Focusing on the practical and work-related issues, separate to the emotional issues that people are facing, will miss a big part of the current and future challenges our staff and volunteers are going to face.

Even before this is all over, a huge number of people will have lost friends, family members and colleagues, and be coming back to work grieving. We are going to need to be sensitive to that as well as to the more practical challenges of things like what the future office set up looks like. The people we work with may also have lost clients, beneficiaries, and people they are caring for as part of their job or as volunteers.

For others, as difficult as having young kids at home while they work during lockdown might be, going back to normal, dropping them off at childminders or school and worrying about whether they are at risk when they go back to work is going to be a huge emotional burden. Others will struggle with feeling miserable and frightened at the prospect of resuming their daily commute, or frustrated because they’ve gotten used to the freedom of working from home, dressed only from the waist up for Zoom meetings.

Then there’s all the people more indirectly affected. The staff who’ll be coming back to work a little less fit, a little more overweight, a little more used to drinking in the afternoon, a little more sick from the underlying conditions they would’ve seen the doctor, hospital or dentist for if they hadn’t been in lockdown.

Personnel-wise it could be a really tough time for lots of organisations to manage, with likely challenges around having staff coping with stress or depression, or just generally being unhappy and not able to readjust effectively or quickly to “normal” work.

So when you’re doing your “back-to-work” plans, risk assessments, and deciding what work is going to look like for the rest of 2020, make sure you include plans for supporting and caring for your staff and volunteers, as well as your IT systems and office risk assessments. Think about how you’ll provide support and care as leaders when you need to, and whether existing policies and procedures might need loosening, reworking or even abandoning altogether.

If you need any help with doing that, keep an eye out – there’s some guidance and advice coming from us on how to do that very soon!