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See you in the office? When and how to re-open

Blog by Ed Mayo, CEO of Pilotlight

A narrated version of this blog is available at the bottom of the page

I still have a suit and tie in an old office in Manchester at my last organisation, one that I left in May 2020. I can see myself back in an office soon, but not in a tie. That’s got me thinking – how do we make a success of office re-opening, and how will we work in future?

The roadmap for relaxing COVID restrictions in England, loosely echoed in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, sets out four steps leading up to June 21st, by which time the hope is to see an end to social distancing. “The results of the review” says the official document “will help inform decisions on the timing and circumstances under which rules on ‘one metre plus’, face masks and other measures may be lifted.”

As this unfolds, many of us in the voluntary sector will be looking to open up again. Charity properties are as diverse as day centres, hospices, offices, lighthouses and stately homes. Even so, in terms of technical action, we can turn to much of the generic guidance for all organisations on how to re-open – such as how to work safely and how to return to work.

What might be different are the values we bring. There is perhaps no better time to start a conversation with your staff and volunteers around what good work is and what perhaps our dream workplace would be for the future.

For myself, I have been inspired by the co-op collective Enspiral, who use and champion circle-based participatory decision making (‘sociocracy’). They use a suite of digital tools for remote working and when they come together, it is for three reasons only – to connect and bond as people, to address complex issues best done face to face and to brainstorm, where they can spark off each other in a physical space together.

We have been having this conversation at Pilotlight. When I shared our plans late last year for re-opening office work in London and Edinburgh, a number of ACEVO members responded. So, to share again, I went back to them this month to record their advice for us all.

Some have been operating throughout the lockdown and for whom, it is not a question of re-opening. Jackie Bliss is CEO of HARP, which has operated non-stop as a life-saving homelessness charity. Vicky Snook is CEO of Carmarthen Domestic Abuse Services, which similarly has remained open as a refuge throughout. In the community, they operate a blended approach. The centre is open for crisis and emergency appointments only with smaller cohorts of staff working in the centre.

Vicky’s team has adapted the building to allow for social distancing and have policies and procedures in place for every aspect of the client journey from making appointments to entering the building. For staff, there is an emphasis on regular communication, ‘toolbox talks’, confidential surveys on a monthly basis and increased supervision to talk through staff anxieties.

For Anne Fox, CEO of Clinks, the national infrastructure body for voluntary organisations in criminal justice in England and Wales, there are no face to face services from their offices, so she is able to give the staff team the leadership on when and how they re-open. They are not anxious about being back in the office, she reports, but coming back into the office, with concerns around commuting on public transport.

While social distancing is in place, most offices will be looking at limiting numbers, with partial or staged re-opening, staggered shifts, restrictions on hotdesking and questions around vaccines. The latter is a sensitive one that the Charity Retail Association has developed guidelines on for its members. Robin Osterley, CEO, shared these with me and they include an excellent steer on how to handle the vaccine question with staff and volunteers.

“Encouraging as many staff and volunteers to be vaccinated as possible will greatly reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission in the charity retail workplace. The Health and Safety Act 1975 requires employers to take reasonable steps to reduce workplace risks which is why it is appropriate to encourage staff and volunteers to opt into the Covid-19 vaccination programme.”

At the same time, he stresses that conversations with staff or volunteers can encourage but should not pressure people. You should be careful in the language used and the attitudes you display, noting that there are risks too of bullying and harassment where people’s views on vaccinations differ.

For Antonia Swinson of the Ethical Property Foundation, giving guidance on re-opening offices is “the stuff of our every working moment”. They have a free download sheet on property advice and run regular webinars on the subject. The Foundation runs a consultancy service for COVID risk assessments, including for social care charities serving vulnerable groups, and give advice to small voluntary organisations and guidance on how to write a property strategy for the new circumstances.

Some of the key questions to ask yourself, Antonia suggests, are:

  • Can you make premises affordable when they are only half used?
  • Do you need an office at all, and if the answer is yes, where should it be?
  • Is the office of the future one based on spaces to meet rather than on desks to sit at?
  • What are the implications for a voluntary sector employer of hybrid working (mixing office and remote working), for example for young people who may not have ideal working conditions at home? Or people having to live in pressured or abusive domestic circumstances?
  • How should funders be supporting the sector as it re-organises its property needs?
  • How should you negotiate with your landlord?

See you back in the office? Yes, but not, I suspect, the office as we used to know it.

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