The return to work: HR experts on how to look after your people

12 March 2021 by

Whether employees have been furloughed or not, it will be a huge adjustment when they return to work, and only the companies that recognise this will keep their staff. Rosalind Mullen joins a panel of HR experts and sponsor Ceridian to discover the post-pandemic plan.

The panel

The panel
The panel

Have communication levels dropped as lockdown and furlough drags on? Or are you changing how you engage with your people, many of whom have been furloughed for over a year?

Steve Rockey (SR): It's been ever-evolving. We hadn't done internal communications before as we're a small business, so it was all face-to-face. Now, we use a lot of video links. Current engagement is good and there's something going on every day, such as online cooking lessons with our chefs. We also offer our managing development training online. A big thing has been opening all this up to everybody, whether they are a KP or the MD.

Rachel Jones (RJ): Training can be tricky but we have made it available and seen a 386% uplift in the number of learning and development (L&D) modules being completed. We've reviewed the ways people are learning and have changed our modules into micro-learning bites. We now offer five-minute, 30-minute or one-hour sessions, so people can do some training between home-schooling, looking after family or whatever. There's been an appetite to learn and we've created content that is both relevant to individuals and helpful for their mental health.

Natasha Whitehurst (NW): We've also taken a holistic approach and introduced modules that previously wouldn't be seen as L&D, such as meditation sessions, managing anxiety and coping with change to support and engage people in different ways. Since March, we've seen engagement of more than 75% on our dial-in calls, where the leadership team addresses questions in real time.

Richard Adams (RA): We've been making online training accessible, too. Initially, we focused on offering compliance learning, which can be easily done in modules. That focus is starting to change and it's now about engaging our people to come back.

However, this will tease out those who have not done any training, nor taken a phone-call and are generally not engaging, so in the weeks ahead we may have to face the challenge of having vacancies we don't yet know about.

In the weeks ahead we may have to face the challenge of having vacancies we don't yet know about

So should you be preparing to recruit if staff are not engaging during furlough?

Jon Dawson (JD): After the fire at Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park London [in 2018], the people who showed levels of engagement were the ones who wanted to come back. The ones who weren't engaging didn't come back. That experience gives you something to think about when you are doing your talent planning.

And how are you supporting staff who have worked throughout the pandemic?

Gail Bagley (GB): If you've got a skeleton crew, there's a lot of fatigue out there and it's important to ensure their mental health is good.

RJ: Yes. A percentage of the workforce hasn't been on furlough and they haven't stopped and people are tired. We've put counsellor services on-site and they're holding reflection sessions, exploring questions such as: What have you learned about yourself? What relationships have been enhanced? What challenges have you overcome? What have you achieved you didn't realise you could do? And so on.

How are you supporting people on furlough so that they can return to work?

Charlotte Hutchings (CH): We're introducing Restart, a 12-week induction plan. Some people will have not worked for a year and they'll be coming back into a workplace that has different health and safety regulations and where there have been staff changes. There may now be smaller support networks of colleagues. We're suggesting they have a dry-run commute – walk to the station, get the usual train, start to connect with team members, or just set an alarm clock half an hour earlier each day to get back into the routine.

NW: We've also done a roadmap to return. We've recognised anxiety and talk of post-traumatic stress disorder among employees, so we've switched to training more junior frontline staff as mental health first-aiders. Initially, senior leaders acted as mentors, but we realised junior staff were less likely to approach them. Uptake is good and it has helped to guide people back into the work environment.

RA: Some people haven't worked for nearly a year through no fault of their own, so we need to [refresh] their knowledge [of menus and the business]. Also, staff coming back may find it unsettling how quiet it is. They're used to a buzz – that's why they do it – and we need to prepare them that it might be different.

GB: There's also a need to phase people coming back. There's still uncertainty at this point about occupancy levels, so we need to be agile. Communication and transparency is key.

RJ: You need to give people confidence and reassurance. I've talked to people in our business who are frightened about coming back to the workplace. We need to look at why. There is Brexit to consider, too. People have left the UK to shield in their home country, but will they come back?

We've done a lot of work around pre-boarding. There's so much new information that frontline staff need to retain, so we have created a new voluntary app that will make it easy for them. For instance, people can quickly see which cloth they should use in which area and so on.

How might new people practices during Covid inform your business?

CH: We now have company calls every two weeks with updates from the chief executive. We're honest that we only know what everyone else knows, but we tell them what we're doing about it. It means people are now getting to know the leadership team and that is positive because they see them as open and more accessible.

JD: Barriers have been broken down, so there's a level of expectation from employees now about getting weekly updates from the chief executive. Successful companies will find ways to continue those things. They should now be part of the culture you have expedited.

We'll work differently and schedule differently. We now have a new initiative on Fridays where you can't have a meeting with anyone at group level. This introduces trust. You can also get up and finish when you want, and that makes people more organised and productive during the week. People have seen a different way of working now.

RJ: We used to fly to Paris for a one-hour meeting or spend three days in Washington DC for a four-hour meeting, but we won't accept that now.

What have you noticed about recruitment trends?

RJ: We have 30 people on our Kickstart programme. Some of our applicants are over-qualified. We had 2,000 applicants after 48 hours and had to shut off the job ad because it's not possible to screen that number.

Matthew Stoll (MS): It's an interesting evolution. How do we entrench staff who are in a role they may be overqualified for? We want them to be part of the organisation, but once the economy rises they could be a departure risk because they could demand more from an organisation than we had thought.

NW: We also need to think about people who might get left behind. We try to get young adults in East London into high-profile contracts. We coach them through interviews and do CV skills workshops, but if you're getting high-performance people applying for these roles, there's a danger they will be left behind. Hospitality has always been the industry where you can go from being on the frontline to managing director through hard work.

JD: The head of recruitment at Sainsbury's told me that when they were losing people they started to recruit staff from hospitality backgrounds and discovered transferable skills they can tap into. Can we get some of them back into the industry? A double challenge will be can we get them back and also maintain what we're doing now to continue the high levels of engagement?

Has hospitality suffered a further dent to its image due to the toll taken by the pandemic, making recruitment harder in the long-term?

Neil McAllister (NM): I was made redundant on day one of a new job in March last year and was not eligible for furlough. I was six months without a job and, by talking to others in a similar boat, I discovered we shared a common aim: we didn't just want a job for the sake of it; we needed to work with the right people and work for someone who treats us well. You can't underestimate how big the talent pool might be, so it's imperative to have policies in place and benchmarks around that.

GB: There will be a huge employment surge [initially], but it will tail off, so it's about how you stand out when it starts to come down again.

How are you perceived right now and what plans are in place to show you are a great employer 18 months down the line?

SR: Tough employment decisions have been made and the Covid story will last longer than 12-18 months. If you've created loyalty in your business, you can lean back on it for a while.

RA: We need to market the sector better. Bodies such as the Hoteliers' Charter and People 1st offer tangible actions to make it a better career option. For instance, we can forecast business so we should not be giving staff their shifts the day before.

MS: Ceridian can give a perspective from our global information. If you can offer an accurate 14 day schedule to new team members, applications will significantly increase. Mechanical things underpin the empathetic relationship with an employer and can cause a real step change.

RJ: And the employee value proposition (EVP) will become more important than ever. Questions such as: what did you stand for in the pandemic? Everyone has made difficult decisions and restructured, but did you do it with humanity and an honest conversation?

We are three parts into a five-part journey around EVP and looking at: what did we believe before the pandemic? Is this management at its best? Has it evolved? Will it continue to evolve? We are proud we topped up furlough and even paid people's mortgages out of directors' bonuses and shares.

CH: Four or five years ago we might have said a business had a great culture because it had beanbags and a snooker table in the office, but now it's more about how you supported your staff during the pandemic – things like life insurance benefits and so on that we were complacent about before. Now we need to look at those packages because people will vote with their feet.

Four or five years ago we might have said a business had a great culture because it had beanbags and a snooker table in the office, but now it's more about how you supported your staff during the pandemic

JD: At Mandarin Oriental we brought careers advisers into the hotel to raise awareness of hospitality jobs in schools. They were unaware about salary levels and the fact you could move up the ladder quickly. They were saying we need to shout about it and be less humble because the kids and the parents want to hear this.

CH: That's brilliant. We need to do a reframe that it is not a career you fall into, but one of choice.

MS: Finding the stories about the bellhop being promoted to top of the shop is critical. Reframing is front of mind in some industries, but hospitality has a unique opportunity to do this well.

How resilient is the sector?

RA: What a 12 months we've had. It has been unbelievably tough and it will take time for us to recover, but it is a durable sector. We dug out photos from one or two of our sites after the Spanish flu pandemic [in 1918]. Our people lived through that and went on to have careers. We have photos of them 10-20 years later still on our sites, having worked up to head chef from a KP. That will happen again.

The agility we've seen to flex hours and bounce in and out of furlough is staggering. We need to remind people that the jobs will still be there and that we can give them regular hours and look after their wellbeing.

Three reasons to be cheerful...

SR: After lockdown, the first thing everyone will want to do is broadly one of three things: go to a pub, go to a restaurant or go to a hotel.

JD: Yes, there's a real risk we can go from bust to boom quickly. July, August and September could be strong months.

GB: We saw that with the staycation in August last year, so I'm optimistic.

About Ceridian


At Ceridian, we create innovative technology that organisations around the world use to attract, develop, manage and pay their people. Our award-winning Dayforce solution helps our customers manage compliance, make better decisions, build great teams and drive engagement with their employees. Ceridian has solutions for organisations of all sizes.

Ceridian. Makes Work Life Better™

Photo credit: Shutterstock

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