The debate around a return to the workplace is increasing in volume, with a Government campaign set to land this week, yet continuing fear and uncertainty around guaranteed employee safety and wellbeing.

So, what is the right thing for employers to do?

The simple answer is there is no single right thing. Multiple studies, including our own research with YouGov, show that half of employees aren’t comfortable about returning to the workplace. Others, of course, are keen to get back – often due to the limited working conditions available at home, the pressures of balancing family commitments and work, and the reduced physical interaction with colleagues.

But, as our own research also shows, one third of organisations are not including measurement around health, safety and wellbeing as part of their approach to employee engagement following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given the disparity between individual employees and organisations as a whole, there is no place for a one-size-fits-all approach to a return to the workplace. Even within the same company, and the most robust health and safety measures in place, a segmented approach is critical to ensuring employee engagement and wellbeing in the long-term.

There are several key elements that employers must take into account to shape an individual return to workplace strategy that caters to every element of their workforce. These include:

  • The role and type of work different employees perform. Can this be done from home or remotely, some or all of the time? If not, how can these employees be best catered for in a COVID-secure workplace?
  • Company needs. Does the organisation need certain individuals back in the workplace, not just for work delivery but also for the softer elements of collaboration, teamwork and company culture?
  • The individual’s personal circumstances. What caring responsibilities or personal health situations are individual employees contending with? Are they more vulnerable, are their dependent children in school or at home? What challenges do they have working in their home environment? And what impact would a return to the workplace have on their work-life balance, and their physical and emotional wellbeing?
  • The impact of a return to individuals and the business. How does a return to the workplace impact individual and organisation-wide safety and wellbeing? What is the impact on the employee, the customer, and the business’s ability to deliver on its objectives?

The public debate around a return to the workplace shows that there are huge divisions of opinion at the highest level. The government is concerned that city centres are at risk yet organisations are proving that many lines of work can be performed effectively from elsewhere. 9 out of 10 employees want some form of flexibility about where they work going forward , yet commercial landlords are under huge financial pressure as fewer tenancy agreements are renewed.

Such gulfs in opinion at a country-wide level only serve to show how divided individuals are likely to be at employee level. This reinforces the fact that a blanket approach to a workplace return just isn’t feasible.

There is no single playbook here. It has to be the employer’s choice, not the government’s, about how, when and if a return to the workplace happens. And the process has to involve discussions between the employer and the individual employee.

If COVID-19 has taught us one thing, it’s that we all need to be more agile, flexible and open to change. Our return to work strategies must reflect this – measuring and reacting to events as they happen, allowing individual and organisation-wide adaptability, and using segmented, data-based insight to ensure we can all make the right decisions at the right time.