Conducting a Return to Work Interview
For support with setting up a Return to Work Interview please contact John Adams on 07881 623119 or 01227 656 888.
Business leaders and managers will be familiar with the circumstances of supporting employees with their return to work, typically following longer term absences such as from maternity, sick leave or agreed sabbaticals. Whilst there are no specific legal requirements, the government Fit for Work occupational health scheme, scrapped in 2018, provided sensible suggestions for the conduct of return to work interviews. However, the uniquely challenging circumstances of the return to work for employees who have either been working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic, or were amongst the furloughed workers, are likely for many to go far beyond the challenges they might face following a more “normal” absence. Although both businesses and employees are likely on the whole to have a shared aim of getting back to normal, this is likely to be far from smooth in many cases, making a structured and planned return to work process even more worthwhile.
Part of the challenge for many businesses in supporting individuals returning to work during the Covid-19 pandemic is the pure scale of employees returning. With over 9.4 million employees and 1.14 million employers supported by the Government Job Retention Scheme in the height of the crisis, it follows that many organisations will potentially have far more individuals returning to work within a relatively short period of time than would otherwise likely be the case from normal circumstances. This statistic does not include the many more millions of workers who have been working from home during the pandemic, and for whom a return to their work environment will also present challenges. Inevitably, paying due diligence to a set process designed to ensure large numbers of individuals are able to successfully return to work, feel comfortable in their environment. and able to achieve previous levels of operational effectiveness will take time and effort for managers who face many competing priorities.
The key steps of the recommended Fit for Work interview process are applied below with suggested considerations to allow for the return of furloughed workers.
Welcome back to work:
It is important to consider that one size is unlikely to fit all when applying an approach to welcoming furloughed employees or those who have worked from home back to a work environment. Whilst a group and team welcome from a business leader or manager will go some way toward reassuring employees regarding the future aims and intentions of the organisation, and their jobs, it can’t be assumed that this will address all of the specific concerns individuals may have. Where feasible, the following steps are recommended:
- One to ones: Individual welcome and review meetings should be scheduled at as early a stage as possible, and once again within a few weeks of their return to work, in order to create a partnership approach.
- Planning: The discussions need to be planned and prepared for by managers, and the circumstance of each individual considered. Although their concerns may be unique, where changes have been implemented few are likely to have been unaffected both during the crisis and upon the return to work. This includes those who have been furloughed, those who have been working from home, and also those who have remained at work whilst others have been at home. All categories of employees are likely to face further change following a return to work for those who have been away, and an open-minded approach to exploring and addressing issues and concerns is essential if businesses do not wish to face subsequent absence issues and a potential employee retention problem. Employers should also ensure they plan to allow sufficient time to conduct such interviews fully if they wish the process to achieve the desired outcome.
- Scheduled revisit: Some employees may not anticipate or fully appreciate the extent of any issues they may face upon their return to work, or the return of others. This may range from practicalities to safety both at work and at home, and issues may not fully surface until after a number of weeks back at work. It is recommended not to assume all is well and will remain so, even after a very positive welcome back meeting, but to revisit the process at a later stage.
Within the first interview, the manager should brief the employee of events that have taken place during the whole period of the crisis. It is recommended to include a wider briefing relating to the overall performance of the business, as well as more specific detail relating to their individual department, role and operational set up.
- Collaboration: Any changes should be discussed as collaboratively as possible, inviting the employee to give their own input and suggestions and raise questions relating to both operational and safety procedures. It is recommended to ask the employee about the potential impact of the suggested changes both to the business and to them as an individual. This may provide unforeseen insights and significant benefit to the process of embedding any change.
- Feedback: Managers should invite and welcome feedback from employees on the success of any new procedures, and set this as an agenda point for the revisit interview several weeks after their return to work. This reinforces the message to the employee that their input is valuable and will be taken seriously.
- Response: Having taken feedback and input from an employee, it is important to consider how and when to provide management feedback on any action subsequently taken. Failure to do so often results in employees being discouraged from being open in the future, as they feel their input is not welcomed or acted upon. Feedback may be provided directly to the individual, but if it relates to an area of wider benefit to the business and other teams, it is recommended to show recognition of the source of the suggestion to other employees, for example in a regular business update.
Effort should be made to identify any specific adjustments which may support the individual in making the transition back to work, or adapting to the return to work of their colleagues. Due to Covid-19 social distance requirements, many businesses may find they have no option but to apply a rotational approach for employees at work. Careful consideration should be given to the following areas in particular:
- Health and Safety Concerns: As part of the employers’ fulfilment of their duty of care, employers should consider carefully whether an employee is likely to be vulnerable and whether factors such as traveling to work via public transport, or even being in the work environment put them at greater risk than they would be if not at work. Any concerns and needs should be discussed sensitively, and care taken to consider the needs of a diverse workforce, including the fact that the level of anxiety if likely to vary amongst employees regarding returning to work under the current circumstances. Consideration should be given to whether any adaptations should be made to address their concerns, which might range from a reorganisation of the office layout to a temporary or longer-term change to their specific role.
- Working hours: It should not be automatically assumed that a return to work means the employee is able to work the exact same hours as they had done prior to the lockdown. Employees may have had to make adjustments to practical arrangements at home which impact upon their ability to work within certain set hours. This might include child or adult care arrangements, or even the need to support relatives or neighbours conducting shielding, or who have tested positively for Covid-19. Failure to identify and make reasonable allowances for such needs may lead to claims of direct or indirect discrimination. The more flexibility employers are able to show relating to both the number of working hours, as well as the specific hours to be worked, the more successful the return is likely to prove. Employers should be careful when considering introducing shift patterns in order to satisfy social distancing requirements, as such changes may prove less feasible for some employees than others to sustain.
- Holiday entitlement and requirements: It is recommended that this likely bone of contention is addressed early and positively, and employers should not assume that one solution will work for all. It should be remembered that although many employees may have not been present at work for several months, they may still have not technically had any holiday thus far in the year. Some may be happy to carry leave forward to the next year or beyond, whereas for others this may prove an impractical solution. Guidelines should be discussed relating to the company stance for individuals returning from holiday from a quarantine region, or having to self-isolate due to contact with an individual who has tested positively. Employers should be wary of trying to prevent employees from taking leave to quarantine locations, at the purpose of their travel may relate to visiting relatives, and subsequently lead to discrimination claims. Where employees have proven they can successfully work from home, it would be ill advised to suggest they have to take holiday, rather than work from home following such circumstances.
Create a plan: Establishing a plan together with the employee, however structured or informal this may be, conveys a positive message of support and reassurance, in particular where the employee has demonstrated a degree of anxiety. Even when the employee does not display concerns at the outset, creating the opportunity for periodic and regular reviews of their personal circumstance and work requirements demonstrates that every effort is being made to identify whether or not any reasonable adjustments are needed. All plans should be subject to review and changes made where necessary, in agreement with the employee.
Confirm absence record: If regular absenteeism was an issue with a particular employee prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, it may prove prudent to remind them of their situation and reiterate the business stance and potential actions relating to further instances. However, for some this may prove an opportunity to positively address some of the reasons that may have driven previous absenteeism, and start afresh with a new collaborative spirit. Clarity should be given as to what would or would not be counted as absenteeism in future, in particular relating to Covid-19 circumstances.
Open for questions: Whilst the employer should make good use of open-ended questions throughout the process, concluding the interview by inviting the employee to discuss any specific areas of concern they wish to raise will ensure the opportunity is not missed to identify any unforeseen issues. It is important to allow time for this point within the interview and not appear rushed or unwilling to explore them further.
We are keen to support you throughout the talent management process so feel free to contact us for further information on conducting interviews or are interested in any of our FREE Interview Strategies resources.