Practical tips for planning your COVID safe return to work

Flexibility and employee engagement are the keys to success, says consultant John Wilkinson


By Oli Templeton, Director, SH Consulting at Sheffield Haworth

It’s not long now until we can contemplate a return to a ‘more normal’ world of work. Except, of course, it’s not that simple. HR professionals everywhere – not to mention senior managers, C-suite executives, business partners, and even employees – understand that serious challenges lie ahead. In this interview, John Wilkinson offers several practical tips to help plan a productive and COVID-safe return to work.

Working from home looks set to morph into ‘hybrid’ working, with a mix of office and home work. Many of the senior executives I’ve spoken to have been grappling with the implications of this for weeks, if not months.

To help provide practical guidance, I interviewed business transformation consultant John Wilkinson. John spent a successful career in financial services with companies such as Nationwide, HSBC, and L&G, before setting up his own consultancy business in 2016.

In this interview, he shares some key findings of research and analysis he recently carried out on behalf of a UK-based company in the insurance space. The company was looking to plot a course towards a COVID-safe return to work for its 2,000 employees, virtually all of whom have been working from home during lockdown.

Following his research, John led project planning and execution for the firm’s post-lockdown work strategy. Here’s what he had to say about the experience. It’s my hope that you find this helpful as you plan your own company’s return to work.


Q: Thanks for joining me John. The media has been full of predictions about how working from home is likely to continue in the form of flexible working. What are your thoughts on this?

A: Flexible working is all about allowing your employees to choose whether to stay working from home or return to the workplace. As your readers may know, many studies are showing that, on the whole, employees like working from home – as many as 80% according to an early McKinsey study.

“69% of employees felt they were as – or more – productive working from home as in the office.”

That same study found that 69% of employees felt they were as – or more – productive working from home as in the office. The research I did recently for this post-lockdown work strategy produced similar results, which means there are many potential benefits to remote working going forward. Here are six of them:

  1. Employee satisfaction. A study of 5,000 workers published this March also showed that employees see working from home as a perk, and that working two days per week from home is worth 6.5% of salary in the eyes of employees, on average.
  2. Increased access to talent. Employers can look beyond their local, ‘over-fished’ talent pools to recruit from all over the country, and even the world.
  3. Boosting diversity and inclusion. From the feedback we got on this project, working from home is popular for those with physical disabilities, as well as for parents who have taken on ‘school run’ responsibilities.
  4. Reduced building costs. Our research found that companies could reduce these by up to 50%.
  5. Lower travel expenses for employers. Most companies will have seen these plummet by at least 80% during lockdown. Whilst they are likely to go back up in the months ahead, there’s no reason why they have to return to pre-COVID levels if we accept that many meetings can now be effective via Zoom or Teams.
  6. Reduced carbon footprint. Remote working is a simple way to do this, due to the reduction in business travel and commuting.


Q: So remote working looks like the way forward then?

A: Absolutely. If there’s a message here for senior managers and HR professionals, it’s the importance of consulting your employees. If you have not done that yet, please do.

“A ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy won’t work. There’s a lot of variation in what employees want and what will keep them happy.”

Most companies will probably find the same thing we did – that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy won’t work.  A recent study by the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow and the University of Manchester found that only 9% of employees currently working from home want to be in the office four or five days a week. Seventy-eight per cent said they would prefer to be in the office two days a week or less.

There’s a lot of variation here in what employees want and what will keep them happy and productive. This data is consistent with our analysis. It suggests that out of every 100 employees, on any given day only 30 will be in the workplace – fewer still when holiday and sickness are accounted for.


Q: How can employers reconcile these findings with their business goals?

A: We found that almost all employees were just as productive at home, with a few limited exceptions. After completing our research, the company expanded its existing remote working policy to support employees working from home subject to three qualifications.

Firstly, if the role can be performed at home as effectively as in the office. Secondly, if the employee’s home environment is suited to working there – they have a quiet environment, a good WiFi connection, and their children are being supervised. Thirdly, that they can maintain productivity and performance while working from home.

As part of the new policy, employees will continue to choose where to base themselves on a given day, subject to them continuing to meet those three qualifying criteria.


Q: That’s a very practical tip – for companies to review and revise some of their existing policies. Do you have any more insights like this you can share?

A: There are a few nuts-and-bolts things companies could look at. Employment contracts, for example. We reviewed these and amended them to say that whilst the normal place of work was the office, the employee could choose to split their time between home and office – again, subject to the qualifying criteria already mentioned.

“The experience so far is that [remote working] makes the company more attractive to prospective candidates.”

When advertising a vacancy we have an online pro forma for managers to complete which asks if the role can be undertaken remotely. If the manager says yes then the company can advertise it as supporting flexible working. It’s still early days, but their experience so far is that this makes the company more attractive to prospective candidates.

The company revised its process for induction and onboarding remote workers as well. One obvious change is that they moved away from needing physical signatures for inductions to getting new starters to use Docusign.

There’s also performance management to consider. We provided guidance for managers and supervisors on how to manage performance more effectively for remote employees. We focused a lot on learning and development. Our research found that supervisors were struggling the most, so we provided training to support them on topics like:

  • How to lead remote teams.
  • Mental health and wellbeing.
  • Digital upskilling in using Microsoft Teams and Powerpoint, and how to ‘shine online’ as a leader.
  • How to make the most of technology and management information to make decisions.


Q: Training is something I’m sure a lot of readers are looking into. How did you choose which training providers to work with?

A: I wasn’t involved personally with picking the training provider. However, I can say why I think they were very good. They offered communication training skills for remote managers, including:

  • How managers and supervisors can make the most of video meetings.
  • How to get the sound of your voice right.
  • Why eye contact is important on video to make a connection, and how to do it better.
  • Where to position your camera.

These are all actionable skills where you can make an impact quickly. I recommend people look to this kind of practical training for their managers. It certainly proved effective in this case.


Q: Do you have any final thoughts for us, John? Maybe some final tips to share?

A: Two main ones. The first is to look into the footprint and purpose of your office space. From our research, even allowing for daily variance, most companies could save up to 50% of building space if only 30% of your employees will be in the workplace on an average day.

This means it’s worth working out how many of your employees do want to return to the office, and how often. Then you can act accordingly and start to look at reducing your building space in phases. We started with an examination of lease expiry dates, for example.

 “Employees are not going to come to work just to plough through emails, so it’s worth asking how you can better use the space you have.”

How the company uses its office space is likely to change too. Employees are not going to come to work just to plough through emails, so it’s worth asking how you can better use the space you have – for example by using planned ‘refurbs’ to introduce more collaboration space.

The second tip is to look into using workplace planning software. We did for this project, and it meant we could upload the workplace layout and allocate which desks can be used at which times. Employees can book a desk, just like a cinema seat.

 “Flexible working is the way forward.”

This means you can enforce safe social distancing in a way that engages your staff and makes them part of the solution. When the employee comes to the office, they sign a health declaration. At the end of the work day, you can remove the desk and clean it. Using this software and monitoring system supplies an audit trail for track and trace if required.

My overarching message is that flexible working is the way forward and, if deployed effectively, it should work very well for both employers and employees.



I hope you found John’s insights and experiences useful for your own return-to-work strategy. Clearly, there are challenges around what remote working might mean for different groups, for example parents with child-care issues, the physically disabled, or employees who are vulnerable to COVID. This is something that requires great sensitivity. The point is to stay open to feedback to be flexible where you can.

From my perspective, the key takeaways from this interview are:

  • To think about how to incorporate flexible working in line with your business goals.
  • To engage your employees and find out what they want.
  • To review your existing policies and possible training needs.
  • To remember above all that one size does not fit all. It makes sense to carry out your own internal research and follow up on the findings for your business.

Change is an opportunity for improvement. In the case of John’s project, the impact of remote working has been positive. Wherever you are in your return-to-work planning, I wish you the best of luck.

If you would like to have a conversation about engaging a consultant to help design and implement your strategic transformation plans, please get in touch with me.


About John Wilkinson

John Wilkinson has over 30 years experience including 15 years retailing financial services and 15 years in business transformation. Over the last 5 years he has focused on leading major strategic transformation including the design of new, digital target operating models and then leading major change programmes to deliver them. John believes business leaders have a mandate to re-examine their business model, leveraging the recent changes in working practices and consumer behaviour to transform their business into one that is fit for the ‘new normal’.


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