Back to normal? The government is underestimating the scale of change for workers.

As the UK government looks for a path out of lockdown, Professor Almuth McDowall considers the psychological impact of transitioning to a new normal.

Picture of people waiting for the tube in London

On Sunday afternoon, we were on our way back from a socially distanced walk with three moderately enthusiastic teenagers when the phone rang. BBC Radio London asked if I was happy to discuss the Transport Secretary’s announcement that the government was considering a phased approach to businesses reopening their doors. The suggestion is to put a number of safety measures in place to safeguard individuals from getting infected, but also minimise pressures on transport and infrastructure.

For employers, the key propositions are to minimise the number of workers using any equipment, to stagger work start and finish times and to maximise home working. The idea is also to encourage people to engage in more active commuting, including cycling and walking.

Many organisations have of course been open and operational throughout the crisis, including our now much appreciated local shops, which have introduced social distancing measures such as limiting numbers allowed in at a time and protective screens.

But will the transition back to the workplace be as easy as some might suggest while extra precautionary measures are implemented?

When quizzed on the radio, I took a rather cautious and even cynical view. Quite frankly, I do not think that the implications of what will be a gigantic organisational change exercise have been properly thought through.

First, let’s think about infrastructure constraints. Many returning workers have children who, we hope, will return to normal nursery and/or school hours sometime soon. This would make it difficult for all workers to shift start and finish times, as there will be practical issues such as school pick up times to work around. Transport will also be a challenge for this reason, given that peak demand is also due to children travelling to and from school. 

Furthermore, not everyone lives in cycling or walking distance from their place of work, quite the contrary. Surely, we also must avoid a scenario where more people are taking to their cars and driving alone, as we are already witnessing in our neighbourhood, to avoid public transport. 

Let’s also think about who will and needs to return to work. There will be workers who are scared about returning. There are also people who will not be able to return, at least not for the foreseeable future, because they are vulnerable, or someone in their family is. 

On the other hand, there are people who are desperate to return, because they currently live and work in crammed conditions, or because they live in areas with insufficient connectivity.  

Each business has to start with a detailed analysis of how a phased return to a mix of onsite and virtual working will play out in practice and accommodate individual needs and preferences. This is not a quick solution, but takes time, skill and effort. 

Research tells us that to make virtual working effective, particularly during times of crisis and uncertainty, managers and leaders need to take an individual approach to help people feel secure and build up trust and effective ways of working. Again, this is no quick fix. 

Some organisations are getting this intuitively right, others not exactly. One of the keys is a combination of communication and clarification of expectations and roles. This will become much harder as businesses are required to adjust and manage a staged transition to open their doors again. If we are not careful, businesses will spend all their energies on managing logistics, rather than concentrating on the core business to keep their customers happy and deliver a good service.

The literature on organisational change firmly agrees on one issue. Change is hard and stressful, even where it is for the better. Humans are hardwired not to like it. This is why times are tough at the moment. Acknowledging this, and our own vulnerability is an important step to manage sustainable change. My fear is that the UK government is considering too complex a range of practical measures without due acknowledgement of the physiological impact on people. It’s time for a rethink.

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