The Acas Podcast


How can we return to work well?

Acas workplace adviser Rich Jones shares his insights for employers, managers and returning workers on how we can return well. We explore: the major issues, the best way to raise concerns, why listening and taking action matters, what role employers, managers and workers can each play and what to do if your plans need to change.

Useful links:

Acas guidance:

UK Government guidance:

HSE guidance:

If you are concerned about a workplace, contact the Health and Safety Executive, or your local authority. You can report your concern anonymously to HSE: or call 0300 790 6787 (Monday to Friday, 8:30am to 5pm)

Acas tailored support for your workplace:


Sarah Guthrie 0:00 

Welcome to the Acas Podcast. I'm Sarah Guthrie part of the communications team here at Acast. And today I'm joined by Rich Jones, who is one of our workplace advisors based in Leeds. Well, thanks for joining me today Rich. Today we're talking about returning to work, which is obviously a huge issue, and one that no one has really had to deal with in a pandemic in this country before at least in most people's living memories. So I wondered if you could start off by giving an insight into what you think the major concerns are for employers and employees.


Rich Jones 0:32 

Yeah, I mean, I think you've you've prefaced it nicely there. I don't think we can underestimate just what strange circumstances we're in at the moment. We really don't know how it's affecting other people because it seems to be massive impacts across the board but in very different ways. And, and I know this from because my role brings me into contact with lots of employers, lots of trade unions, and various other organisations and I've talked these things through and there's absolutely no one size fits all, in terms of what's going off here. I think the other thing is we've got to remember some people have been working throughout this. And so there are massive issues of equality, in terms of some people are working, not just working but working longer hours working harder working in harder environments, and others, for whatever reason found themselves either working from home and potentially the job has become slightly easier or maybe furloughed, in which case some people are are probably struggling financially as a result of that. Others may actually quite likely the break. So there's huge differences which themselves might cause some tension as people start to go back into what's being called the new normal and people start going back to work. The evidence suggests from talking to these different bodies that a lot of staff have shown a lot of goodwill to get us this far. Without that goodwill, we'd be in a far worse place. But the message coming through loud and clear from those staff and from the bodies that represent them, is that they don't want this to just go back to what it used to be like, you know, there's been lots of good things that have come out of this crisis, and the goodwill and the relationships that have been built and some of the new systems and processes that have been put in place, there may well be a role for those moving forwards. And we don't want a knee jerk reaction to just go back to how things used to be. But but at the same time, businesses have got it really difficult because they've got to balance the needs of individuals against their survival and the need to move forward. So that's going to be the sort of difficulty we face in trying to balance the needs of individuals and the needs of businesses to survive and prosper. And sometimes those two things are compatible. Sometimes they're not. And that's what's gonna lead to the tension.


Sarah Guthrie 3:09 

So, almost as you're talking, I'm thinking, imagining that I'm a, you know, a business that is thinking of opening up in the next couple of weeks couple of months. How do I do that that balancing well? How do I approach this issue of returning physically to the workplace well?


Rich Jones 3:28 

The big message is do not underestimate the concerns and the fear that some employees have about returning to work. I've seen various statistics, anything from 40% of the workforce, right up to 70% of the workforce, who are being asked to return have real concerns about what that's going to involve. So employers have got to first of all, bear that in mind and talk to and listen to all of the employees. If all they do is draw up a plan and say, "Right, we've spoken to some consultants, this is what's going to happen," I think that's a recipe for disaster. Because we all know in Acas that you need to take people with you. So being right isn't good enough. You've got to show you're right. And and showing your right is talking to people explaining the logic behind decisions that are being proposed, and listening to concerns and dealing with those so that it reduces that sort of tension that people have. And you take people with you that way. So I think that's the first thing I would say. And that's based on an understanding that the issues for individuals will be very different. One of the big problems that we come across is is managers and people judging others by the what, what it's meant for them, or how they've, they've dealt with a particular situation. But of course, just because I can deal with maybe working from home or wearing peopIe It doesn't mean that somebody else can do so we have to take This whole person approach, because you could be talking about somebody, for instance, who is worried about not going back to work, but about catching the virus and then going back to where they live, where maybe they're shielding a vulnerable person or something like that, and passing the virus on to them. It could be that people are concerned about how they're going to get to work and back. It could be that cleanliness is an issue. So people might want assurances that there's been a real deep clean to the premises. Others might be worried about things like social distancing. And another issue might be depending on the circumstances you're working in, you know, the provision of PPE, and is, is it adequate? Is there enough of it? Is Is there an alternative way of dealing with the return to work that doesn't involve BP at all? So it's a really complex picture. I'm sorry, that was a very long answer. But there's a lot of things that I've I've picked up on my travels and I'm just trying to relay as much as I can to get a feel for the The complex landscape we're in.


Sarah Guthrie 6:02 

Yeah, because it's complex on so many different levels. So given that complex picture, what's the best way of managers in an organisation dealing with say someone coming to them and asking for, say, a specific approach that suits their situation? How do you balance that with organisations needing to set overall policy?


Rich Jones 6:24 

Okay, well, again, there's not going to be a one size fits all here, but it's about listening with an open mind to any concerns that employees have, and listening to what sorts of suggestions they may have to try and get around those. So rather than the employer suggesting things, listen to anything that's coming from the employee themselves, because they probably know what's gonna work and what's not gonna work, whereas the employee or the employer, because they're not that person, they may not. It's not rocket science, but it's about listening. And then it's about trying to find strategies that will alleviate the concerns of those individuals, it could be as simple as explaining what's what's going to happen, because they may be under a false assumption. Or it could be that there are adjustments, which could be quite easily put in place, which the employer had never thought about, and which aren't going to be a big burden on the business. But equally, it could be that the employee doesn't really know what to suggest. And the employer is a bit of a loss because things have to happen and they can't find another way around it. And that's where you have to have a very difficult conversation with people about what the options are. It's going to depend on each individual business, it's going to depend on the amount of labour that they need and potentially how desperate it is that the business gets running again for its survival, but it could ultimately come to the point where employees have to say to people, "We've tried to deal with these as sensitively as we can your concerns. But ultimately, we have to, we have to move forward on this. And we can't just leave you sitting at home. And that's where potentially a long, long way down the line, employers might be looking at disciplinary action, but the last thing they should do is jump straight to that premise and start waving the stick that if you don't come back to work, I'll be sacking you. That's absolutely the wrong way to do it. And all that will happen is it will antagonise people will lead to complaints, wasted time tribunal complaints and you might well lose a very good employee and have to re recruit at difficult time. When by talking to the individual and spending a bit more time with them, you might have been able to find an accommodation to keep them. So I've been concentrating a lot there on individuals but of course employers also need to remember that if they're in an environment where there are recognised trade unions or there are staff associations or groups of workers who they traditionally consult, it would be good practice to do that first. So try and get some sort of agreement in place that's pooled the knowledge of those people, before you start presenting plans to individuals. Again, it's just about two heads are better than one. And if you consult with all relevant parties, you're likely to get an outcome that A is going to be more acceptable to everybody, and be is more likely to work.


Sarah Guthrie 9:26 

Yeah, thank you Rich, that's really interesting. It feels like we've been talking a lot from the employer level, what’s the role of managers in this, like, how can they play a part in helping an organisation return to work well?


Rich Jones 9:40 

The difficulty is that with a senior management team, you're talking about a small number of individuals in most organisations, but with middle managers and supervisors, you could have quite a large number of people. The wider spread of people you're talking about, the more risk there is that you get inconsistency both in the message that's conveyed, and in the approach that's taken to solving problems. So I think it's about trying to encapsulate in writing the agreement that I just talked about that hopefully you can reach with union staff, associations, groups of staff. And then making sure that when that's rolled out, everybody's clear about what the message is, so that you don't get those inconsistency is sure you're always going to get some managers who view things slightly differently. But if you can stop some of the beginning consistencies, then that's going to lead to a better implementation of the strategy and a happier workforce. And that might be involve some sort of training you know, you might have to sit people down and talk them through the why and and how this is going to work, take questions from them because of course, managers and supervisors may have concerns about the approach their employees as well. So similar sort of approach, but they have a key role. And we often find that it's the middle managers in organisations, that can often be an issue when an organisation is trying to embark on a big change like this, if they don't understand the message or if they're not signed up to it.


Sarah Guthrie 11:19 

So spending some time on those, like actually prepping everybody at all points of the organisation organisation to cascade the message.


Rich Jones 11:28 

Yeah, so recognising that they're their managers, but they're also individuals. So you need to have two conversations with them. One is about how are you? What are your concerns? What can I do to help? The other is, this is the approach we're thinking of taking. What do you think about it? Any concerns, any other suggestions on how we can improve it? Any problems with you going away and cascading that now? So you have the two conversations and hopefully, that deals with your concern.


Sarah Guthrie 11:54 

Yeah. Almost as as we mentioned at the beginning of the podcast, this is unpredented and I have pictured in my head, almost this grand plan that you kind of roll out and then you do it and it works. When in reality this is this is not something that we can control down to the nth degree. What would you say to an employee who perhaps has started to return to work? What happens if, if it's not working? Or if things change? How can they deal with this as an evolving situation?


Rich Jones 12:28 

Again, it's about talking. But your your question is actually very pertinent because one of the things that we find in Acast is that no matter how good an employer is, no matter how good a manager or senior manager is, they never quite get the full story from employees about what's concerning them. Partly because people are concerned sometimes to voice their concerns for fear of been seen as a troublemaker or something like that. And partly because sometimes supervisors and managers sift out what might seem unpalatable parts of staff concerns when they feed them the line. So what we say is senior managers never ever get the full picture of how staff are feeling. But it's this is about trying to get as accurate a picture as you can about what the staff concerns are so that you can take remedial action which addresses those concerns, rather than addresses perceived concerns. And and it's quite interesting because we actually do quite a lot of work in this area, which we don't tend to publicise because employers don't normally want to publicise it, understandably, but we actually use our badge of independence and impartiality, to talk, either individually or in groups, to staff about what their real concerns are. And because we are independent and we don't work for the organisation, they will actually tell us what the real concerns are, and what they would like to see done differently and we can then use them to shine a light back to the organisation and say, "This is what the real picture looks like. So now now you understand that you can go away and devise an appropriate action plan." So that's where we get that, that sort of understanding from because we do that sort of work.


Sarah Guthrie 14:16 

So thinking about it, actually, from the employees perspective, for a moment, imagine, say, I had a concern, what advice would you have for individuals who are concerned? How can they feedback their concerns in a way that really helps employers to hear and act on them?


Rich Jones 14:32 

Well, the first thing is to be diplomatic. What you have to remember when you're an employee, is that you, your only power is to influence people. So the best way to do that is to take a reasonable approach, and to make sure that the logic in your argument stands out because it is the logic of an argument that will win the day, rather than somebody threatening somebody shouting, somebody's making all sorts of accusations which we've all seen. might make people feel good, but actually, it doesn't lead to good employment relations moving forward, and he doesn't normally get what you want anyway. So it's about trying to be clear what it is that you concerned about how you're going to articulate. And also try and come up with an alternative. Rather than just being a blocker and saying, I don't want to do that. Offer a suggestion about what you might do instead that you think might be appropriate or might be the word I'm looking for, might be acceptable to the employer as well. So you, you're trying to find a win win, but it's not necessarily the win win that you set out to achieve, if that makes sense.


Sarah Guthrie 15:42 

Yeah, yeah. So diplomacy and logic to help you kind of move forward in a way that is a bit more watertight than throwing emotion around perhaps?


Rich Jones 15:55 

Yeah, diplomacy, logic and the positive spin on it. So trying to look to what you can do rather than what you can't?


Sarah Guthrie 16:03 

So imagine as an employee that you've done all of what we've been talking about, maybe your employer has consulted with you or they haven't, and you've raised your concerns, but you still don't think that they are being compliant to the guidance that the government set out. What can an employee do in that situation?


Rich Jones 16:24 

Well, hopefully, many employees will be in a position where they have a good enough relationship with their boss to be able to talk to them. That's the starting point. But I accept that sometimes these things are difficult and it's quite sensitive. So if employees don't feel able to do that, they may want to seek further advice. And obviously, there's the Acas helpline, there's the Acas website and there's a whole host of other organisations that can help. One of the things we would always suggest if if somebody comes to our helpline, for instance, with a concern, and we think it could help is, "Are you a member of a trade union? Because if you are and the trade unions have often got a lot of help that they can offer, both in terms of advice and in terms of representing individuals."


Sarah Guthrie 17:07 

Thank you Rich, that's really useful. And of course, people can also contact HSE if they have concerns, and we'll put links to that in the session notes for this episode. So thank you, Rich, it has been great talking to you today about returning to work and unpacking the complexities of that and how we do it in a way that smooth, that reduces anxiety that keeps communication up so that we can return to work. It's been great talking to you today. So thank you.


Rich Jones 17:33 

Thank you, Sarah. All the best.


Sarah Guthrie 17:34 

This has been the Acas Podcast. You can find useful links to our website and guidance on returning to work, plus links to the Health and Safety Executive, if you have a concern about a workplace you're returning to in the session notes for this episode. Thanks for listening.

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