The best-laid plans often go to waste but never more so than during the past six months.
In July, Boris Johnson issued a rallying call for people to return to their offices to help save the British economy. Last week, the Prime Minister backtracked in dramatic fashion, urging people to work from home wherever possible – a direction that looks set to stay in place until at least March next year.
For businesses, including mine, that were preparing to bring employees back to the office in a COVID-safe manner, the new advice is hard to stomach. I returned to my London office last Monday excited for a return to business, not quite as ‘usual’ but as close to usual as is possible in the current climate. Last week’s announcement by the PM has largely extinguished that sense of optimism and forced me and many other employers into a rapid rethink.
The coronavirus pandemic is uncharted territory for all of us, politicians included, and it is understandable that strategies to tackle it will need to be fluid. But it doesn’t make the latest U-turn any less frustrating. Over the past week, I have spoken to numerous retail leaders who were set to begin bringing head office employees back in a gradual, safe manner in line with government guidance. For all the work involved and money invested there was genuine enthusiasm about colleagues being able to meet again in an office environment.
Now, it feels like we are back to square one, except that this time for many workers the novelty of home working (if it ever existed) will have worn off; and as the nights draw in and local lockdowns restrict the ability to socialise, the prospect of another six months’ working from the kitchen, bedroom or (for the lucky ones) home office will come as a blow to many people.
Still, this is the situation we find ourselves in. So how can businesses and their employees make the best of a difficult situation?
Firstly, it will be important to reassess the impact on people’s health and wellbeing. Experts talk of hitting a “six-month coronavirus wall” reflecting the fact that the six-month mark of any crisis is challenging as people begin to run out of steam. More so than ever, employers need to ensure that people’s emotional needs continue to be met. This requires strong internal communications alongside continued understanding, flexibility and commitment to employee health that has been the hallmark of the best corporate responses to the pandemic.
A lot of pressure will fall on managers and senior executives to ensure the wellbeing of their team members – but they themselves will also need guidance and support. It can be no coincidence that we have seen a surge in requests for our executive coaching service to help business leaders navigate through these difficult times.
Employers will also need to re-evaluate their onboarding programme for new starters. People who joined towards the start of the pandemic have had little opportunity to build the relationships and networks that are so critical to employee satisfaction and performance. Hopes that home-working would be a short-term measure have now been dashed and so businesses will need to rethink how they integrate newcomers and help them embrace the organisational culture and ways of working.
There are some reasons for optimism too. Businesses have had six months to adapt to home-working. Many have done so successfully while others will have learned lessons from the challenges they encountered. Most companies will have a much better understanding now of what they need to do to remain productive while keeping employees engaged and happy.
The retail economy is also showing signs of life with some companies reporting a recovery in sales as shoppers adapt to the new environment. The unwinding of the furlough scheme will inevitably result in further job losses but those who are retained should feel slightly more confident about their job security.
Ultimately, however, these are extremely challenging times for everybody involved in retail. More than ever we need to stick together as an industry, support one another and make it through the difficult months that lie ahead.