The office cannot be the same again!

Bennachie Hill, Scotland (Author’s photography

After over 100 days in lockdown, it’s safe to say that most organisations would have spent the last couple of months planning for various return to work (RTW) scenarios. Although well-meaning, there is a risk that some scenarios may be too focused on only the physical side of safety. A number of businesses have spoken about the following measures:

  • Ensuring that people can work while maintaining a safe distance
  • Providing sanitisation stations
  • Providing temperature screening facilities
  • Providing free masks, sanitiser and PPE for staff
  • Phased return to work with staff working in shift patterns at the office/home to minimise public transport commute and congestion in offices.

While the above measures are to be applauded, they mostly point to ‘keeping the staff as healthy as possible, so they can continue to be productive‘.

As we return back to working in the office, we will see employees with different experiences of working in lockdown. There is no doubt some people have thrived during lockdown as they have found more balance in their lives, achieved through reduced non-essential activities. However others have seen the days bleeding into one another and battled with the associated stress from working longer and harder due to fears around job security. 

Working parents have had a particularly tough time during lockdown, navigating the unchartered waters of homeschooling and working full-time, while trying to stay sane. In June a California woman filed a lawsuit against her former employer after she alleged she was fired because her young children were making noise during business calls during the coronavirus pandemic. 

As lockdown has had a varied response across the diverse workforce, it is important that D&I forms part of the RTW strategy to ensure we get the best out of people. 

Five D& I strands to consider before COVID-19 amnesia creeps in and we forget the good, bad and the ugly from the global pandemic.

Team engagement – Although several people might complain about online meeting fatigue at the moment, one thing’s for sure, we have seen increased levels of engagement across teams thanks to technology. Moving social interaction online has led to some people with physical and mental disabilities to participate in team activities, leading to a more inclusive work environment. As we step into this new dawn, what are we doing to ensure we do not exclude team members that are unable to participate in team events due to disability?

Caring for carers – Some employees have spent the last three months as a carer for relatives unable to care for themselves. Let’s think of that for a second. They have continued to work, act as carer and run a household with minimal support. Lockdown may have exposed a part of their life that was previously private. Are your employees confident enough to declare when they have such responsibilities? Can we as leaders consider how a phased return for these people may look compared to others?

Neurodiversity – There is growing research and data on neurominorities in the workplace (e.g. autism, dyslexia, ADHD) and the 2019/20 Business Forum Disability Survey indicates that up to a third of some neurominorities are working without any adjustments made for their disability/condition. Some people with autism for instance have found that the reduced sensory overload over the past few months has created a more conducive work environment for them. Their return to office work therefore requires consideration in a phased manner and appropriate consultation with staff to minimise disruption. Unfortunately, although neurominorites represent 10 per cent of UK population, not all of them have declared this to their employer. 

Working parents – The optimistic scenario we all hope for, is for schools to go back to normal after the summer holidays. However, there is a chance that schools may reopen in a phased manner with a blended style of learning (part homeschooling/part classroom) taking place. Expecting parents to return back to “normal” routines when schooling/childcare arrangements are not back to “normal” is like trying to swim with lead boots and wondering why you’re not floating. Lets use the learnings from the pandemic to fuel permanent changes in how flexible working is viewed in the workplace. 

Mental health – Underpinning the above points is the critical issue of mental wellbeing. The impact of lockdown on people’s mental health is mixed. While some have found new and stronger connections improving their wellbeing, this has not been the case for others that have faced the death of close family/friends, deterioration of heath and general stress and anxiety around their work and home life. Another dark side to the pandemic is domestic abuse, which the United Nations describes as a “shadow pandemic”, growing through the lockdown of over 4 billion people.

Rather than pretend it’s not an issue, let us engage with staff like we really do care and find out how to support them as we emerge from the pandemic. 

If you’re reading this as a business leader, as you plan your RTW strategy, challenge yourself and your organisation to do the following in the next twelve months.

  • Engage with your workforce before they return to the office to identify how they can be supported individually
  • Ensure D&I considerations form part of your RTW strategy (it’s not too late to include it). Also communicate this to staff as it shows you care
  • Review any changes you implement at set intervals e.g 1-month, 3-months, 6-months, 1 year.


  1. Lockdown has had a varied impact on diverse groups in the workforce.
  2. The current climate provides an opportunity to shine a spotlight on D&I as we prepare to return back to offices.
  3. Recognising and providing adequate support for our diverse workforce will contribute towards a more inclusive work environment.

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