On Wednesday 14 July, Catherine O’Neill the Stakeholder Engagement Manager for the Transforming and Innovating Public Services (TIPS) programme welcomed everybody to the Returning to the Workplace: Employee Wellbeing session. The session shared tips and techniques to support those returning to the workplace from invited speakers Sarah Bullock & Emma Morris from St Helens Council and Lesley Parkinson & Gail Porter from Restorative Thinking.

As restrictions ease, many of us that have been working from home, will now be returning to the workplace. This transition back to the office can be daunting and can present challenges such as changing work patterns, home working burnout, feelings of isolation, anxiety over social distancing and it is key to ensure that staff wellbeing is managed during this transition.

The first speakers on the agenda were Lesley & Gail from Restorative Thinking on ‘Health & Wellbeing’. In this session, they explored how restorative and relational practice can support staff through the ‘new different’, the benefits of human-centred processes through a variety of presentations, discussions and breakout sessions. Lesley welcomed delegates and shared insights about restorative and relational practices that can help guide staff through the new different and prioritise a human-centred approach.

Restorative practice is an evolving social science, it derives from restorative justice between the defendant and the victim and this can be used in the workspaces in our dealings with each other. When returning to the office there is a strong emphasis on employee wellbeing and restorative practice adds to this, if you change the term ‘well-being’ to ‘being well’ this will help support individuals being well every day as a practice.

To understand how we interact with each other, how our relationships are, what our language and behaviours look and feel like, to ensure that everyone has the same understanding of what a good relationship looks like in the working world is what restorative practice gives us. These principles and skills we can all recognise and understand daily will help everyone bring out the best version of themselves to the world. Gail added that the focus is on having greater personal connections across the workforce and will bring a higher level of trust, respect and engagement from staff. It is in the best interest of your organisation to appeal to your employee’s emotional connection to their work and the company’s mission.

The session then moved to breakout rooms to help understand how far relationships and a human-centred approach is already prevalent in our workspaces and presenters asked delegates to discuss the following questions;

What already happens at work to make you/your colleagues feel connected, recognised and respected? 

Delegates responded that they had held regular team meetings during the pandemic and one of the key questions in these meetings was to ask each other how they were doing and how their weekend was? Some delegates added that they have included weekly/monthly wellbeing meetings, this allows staff to have those connecting conversations you would have in the office over a coffee but now are unable to do so, creating a wellbeing slot in everyone’s diaries allows a space to connect with your colleagues. Furthermore, delegates felt connected because of the ease of the virtual connection, at the press of a button you can have a whole team in a meeting within seconds. Finally, delegates discussed the importance of using external applications to connect to colleagues and team WhatsApp groups have been great in keeping everyone connected and together. 

What are the challenges in your team/organisation towards colleagues feeling connected, recognised and respected?

Delegates discussed some of the challenges in feeling connected, recognised and respected by colleagues. Since the pandemic delegates have found the new hybrid working model a challenge, managing staff when they are at home, at work or out in the field. Specifically for managers this new setup means it will be difficult to bring everybody together as a team. This will also make it harder to offer the wellbeing offer, as for many organisations not 100% of their staff are digitally connected. This means that a number of staff will not have access to an email address and may not be aware of what is available to them, this presents a further block to try and get into every part of the organisation and provide the benefits of the wellbeing offer. Finally, some delegates mentioned that in new roles, or new starters would find it very tough as they are unable to connect and meet people in person, which means that it is more difficult for them to be recognised and build relationships.

What are your suggestions to meet these challenges?

In order to support a new hybrid way of working delegates suggested that the managers lead on this is key, social communication happens at the workplace but formal communication comes from your manager. It is important for your manager to hold regular 1-1’s and appraisals and have an open line of communication with their managing staff. Furthermore, delegates discussed how important it is to shift the culture around wellbeing and to include those digitally excluded. This can be done by creating a team charter that outlines how they will communicate, collaborate for each individual on a team by team basis. This can also be supported by creating time for wellbeing in regular meetings as an add-on or as a separate meeting in itself. These meetings then should begin with ‘How are you doing?’ giving the individual the opportunity to open up and discuss any struggles or concerns they may have. Finally, to manage new starters delegates mentioned the idea of having new starter buddies, colleagues that can support, connect and help the new starter in their new role. This buddy system has to be focused on the individual allowing them to build relationships on a professional and personal level.

After the breakout session, speakers Sarah & Emma from St Helens Council introduced their Ways of Working (WOW) Programme. The programme is an innovative change programme that encompasses cultural transformation, policy and strategy modernisation, digital innovations and a modern accommodation programme. Most importantly, the programme has a key focus on staff health and wellbeing and ensuring that people feel part of a modern, efficient and effective council.

Sarah began by sharing St Helens Council’s journey of preparing to return to the office and tips and lessons learnt from their WOW programme. The WOW programme feeds into the wider borough strategy, a core strand of the programme is staff wellbeing and the initial phase focused on office based staff. This phase allowed them to see what the benefits, positives and challenges are and how they can address them to create a positive culture for staff so that they feel supported and valued. For St Helens Council this meant they were looking to reset, not recover from COVID19 and have termed it the ‘next normal’. They have developed a hybrid agile blended working model that is flexible and adaptable and reflects that people have different circumstances, feelings, thoughts, anxieties and responsibilities.

The programme has four key projects; policy and strategy, cultural transformation, accommodation and IT & Digital. Part of the cultural transformation meant that in order to support staff engagement at St Helens Council they recruited over 150 volunteers from across the organisation to be cultural champions. They meet once a month and anybody that isn’t digitally enabled has shared a personal email address to access the meetings. At the start of the meeting everyone uses the ‘menti tool’ this helps to check organisational wellbeing and from this a word cloud is created of the views of the champions. The champions have been invaluable in providing feedback, sharing ideas and influential in shaping the direction of the organisation.

In addition, in the accommodation project St Helens Council has looked at transforming their physical environment and have created an agile hub. The agile hub, is a staff socialisation space, uses corporate colours and is modern with flexible furnishings. A key learning point from creating this hub was to test out the configurations and spaces before committing to purchasing. Staff have been asked for feedback on what they like or dislike and for staff that haven’t visited the agile hub are sent mood boards of different styles of furniture and then this feedback will be used to inform the permanent purchase of the new furniture. Feedback from staff has been key for the decisions made in the programme, for example originally the agile hub was to be used for meeting rooms, collaboration spaces and individual desks. However, feedback from staff suggested that they would prefer to have team areas to work alongside their colleagues, this led to the development of innovative ‘villages’ that are dedicated spaces for particular teams and departments where they can collaborate.

Additionally, as part of the IT & Digital project St Helens Council has developed an innovative and efficient application that staff can now use to book desks, spaces and meeting rooms. They can tailor this to suit their needs and book a space for an individual or for a team, they can also utilise the app to book a bike space, car parking space and can add any of these bookings to your calendar. The app also includes COVID secure features, such as booking cleaning between booked meetings and ensuring there are sufficient gaps between bookings, this supports staff in feeling safe and secure in the workplace.

St Helens has worked hard to support employee wellbeing and utilised digital surveys and team meeting toolkits to understand staff engagement. They have encouraged staff to move away from the screen and opt for lunchtime walks where possible, as well as promoting online fitness classes with the leisure services. St Helens Council have worked really hard to strengthen their wellbeing offer and are mindful of what the workforce is going through, the senior leadership team role modelled a non-work meeting to highlight the importance of your personal relationships and connections outside of work conversations. Furthermore, ‘Chat with Kath’ sessions have been introduced giving all employees the opportunity to ask the Chief Executive any questions, this has been vital in dispelling myths and rumours in the organisation. 

When it comes to returning to the office, St Helens have adopted numerous ways to keep staff engaged and to ensure that their wellbeing is at the forefront. Managers have been given a wellbeing toolkit that outlines how to have wellbeing conversations with staff. All returning staff will be given a welcome back bag that includes a snack, a water bottle and a postcard to signpost to the wellbeing toolkit and a wristband that highlights an individual’s level of comfort in the workspace. This has been key in giving staff the control over their own anxieties and fears when returning to the workspace.

After the presentation from St Helens Council, delegates were assigned breakout rooms, to discuss what actions have been taken to support workplace wellbeing and any takeaways from today’s session. Delegates responded that staff engagement is key to understanding the wellbeing of your organisation and ensuring that comms are good and are reaching all members of staff even those digitally excluded so they can take up their wellbeing offer. Also, that staff should be encouraged to occasionally meet away from the office and implement wellbeing on meeting agendas to recognise and support an emotional wellbeing offer.