Returning to work after lockdown: lessons from New Zealand

New Zealand is in the enviable position of being virtually Covid-free. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s policy of ‘go hard, go early’ has paid off and lockdown restrictions have been eased.

The country is tiptoeing its way back to work. Businesses, offices and workplaces are, however, navigating the post-Covid landscape with the threat of the virus ever-present.

Other countries around the world, including the UK, are now contemplating a gradual return to the workplace. (Note: when we say return to work, it usually means return to places of work – as work hasn’t stopped!).

So what lessons have been learned in New Zealand that we can benefit from?

I’ve long admired Jacinda Arden’s leadership style and I’m curious to know what New Zealand has done in relation to the pandemic. New Zealand went into lockdown for seven weeks from 25 March, and has become a global success story in containing the coronavirus, with fewer than 1,500 people infected and 22 deaths.

During lockdown, many workers experimented with working from home for the first time, and a University of Otago study of more than 2,500 people found the arrangement suited many. According to the study 73% of people were “equally or more productive” when working from home, and 89% wanted to continue post-lockdown, at least part-time.

Despite 38% of respondents never having worked from home before, 66% of people found it “easy or somewhat easy” to adapt, with 82% saying they felt they had the right resources to do their job, although only 17% had all of those resources provided by their employer.

I’m delighted to bring you a new guest post today written by Steve Hockey, CEO at MyHub Intranet Solutions, who are based in Auckland, New Zealand. Having been through the experience, he’s shared some insights on what businesses need to do to prepare.

What have you been doing in your organisation? If you have a story to share, please check out the guidelines and get in touch.

I’ll hand you over…

Returning to work after lockdown: lessons from New Zealand

1. Plan and communicate

Returning to work has to be thoroughly planned and carefully managed. After all, the stakes are high. Businesses will have to navigate the new health and safety and social distancing requirements, alongside managing employees’ mixed feelings. Compassion and empathy are important when communicating with staff as they prepare for re-entry back to the physical workplace.

Some staff who perhaps live on their own will be eager to get back to work. They will have missed the routine and social interaction with colleagues and are looking forward to returning.

Some may be deeply uneasy. These staff members may be vulnerable to Covid-19 or have caring and parenting responsibilities. Furthermore, some employees may have been ill themselves, lost loved ones or colleagues to the virus.

Others may have preferred the working from home arrangement. Many may have experimented with working from home for the first time, and a University of Otago study of more than 2,500 people found the arrangement suited many. According to the study 73% of people were “equally or more productive” when working from home, and 89% wanted to continue post-lockdown, at least part-time.

Further reading on the All Things IC blog: What is a COVID-secure workplace?

2. Staggered return

In New Zealand, many businesses have implemented a staggered return to work. This approach recognises the different needs of employees. Furthermore, bringing all staff back at once poses a significant risk which is minimised with a staged return. A flexible, home/office blended approach meets the needs of both employees and the business. And it also means that should lockdown measures be reintroduced; the company will be better able to adapt.

Managers need to decide how best to do this. Staff could perhaps volunteer to return. Or it could be on a rotating shift basis with employees alternating between home and office working. Some workers will no doubt have to prepare the way for others. IT staff, Facilities Management and HR will be required to set up systems, sanitise equipment and arrange desks.

And once you have prepared your plan, it’s vital to share it with staff. No doubt, there will be lots of questions. Set up two-way communication channels so employees have a voice and can raise any issues.

3. Safety first

The safety of employees should be the top priority. Arrange for a deep clean of the workplace before staff return. Even though the office has been empty for weeks, thorough cleansing will reassure staff that the workplace is safe.

Next, you need to develop a new hygiene policy that follows government guidelines. Keep on hand a ready supply of hand sanitiser, disinfectant wipes, face masks and gloves.

Hot desking, handshakes and shared equipment are likely to be off-limits. Social distancing rules affect not only desk spacing but also canteens, meetings and communal spaces. Make sure your staff are clear about the company’s expectations and any new protocols.

According to a survey in Fortune, the main fear of staff returning to work is the behaviour of colleagues. The survey showed 37% of respondents were concerned “others in my office will behave in a way that puts me in danger.” Managers need to be sensitive to this and develop confidential systems for employees to report any safety breaches.

Further reading on the All Things IC blog: How to prepare your employees for the future.

4. Morale and wellbeing

These are still very anxious times for all of us; the post-Covid world feels like a much different place. Rebuilding staff morale and company culture are vital. To this end, make the workplace feel as normal as possible.

Keep up any company rituals like birthday shout-outs or celebrating the employee of the month. Encourage social interaction and as physical distancing makes that tricky, then continue with the online tools you used in lockdown. Team chats, #channels, or virtual bake-offs will work just as well now. In fact, they are a useful bridge to connect home and remote workers.

Also important is the ongoing mental wellbeing of employees. Pull together and share with all staff mental health resources. It could be hotlines, local help groups, relaxation techniques or online support. Encourage managers and staff to be vigilant and check in on their team members regularly.

Further reading on the All Things IC blog: Diary of communicating in a pandemic.

Main takeaways

The process of moving from crisis to recovery will take time. A well-communicated return-to-work plan is the essential starting point. And a flexible, empathetic approach means staff will be carried along in a shared vision of the new normal.

Post author: Steve Hockey, CEO, MyHub @MyHubIntranet. MyHub is a world-leading, cloud-based software provider. Established in 2002, its software is used by organizations all around the world, of all sizes and across all sectors.

Thank you Steve.

Join me at the Virtual Poppulo CommsBootcamp

I’m going to giving a keynote talk at the upcoming Poppulo BootCamp on 14 July 2020 and would love you to join me. It’s free to attend and I’ll be sharing thoughts on communicating change in a turbulent world.

See the Poppulo website for more information and to save your place.

I’m used to giving keynotes on stage, so it will be a new experience for me to deliver one virtually and I’m looking forward to the conversations. I hope you can join me.

I hope you found this useful. Thank you for stopping by


First published on the All Things IC blog 25 June 2020.

Photo by Dan Whitfield from Pexels.

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