How ai has approached the Return to Office

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Five hundred twenty-four days ago, ai staff were required to work from home in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Like many other companies, we initially expected this to be for a few weeks. However, it was 16 months before we were able to welcome back all employees. Although we had opened the office for those who felt that they needed to come in due to their personal circumstances at various points, when Government guidelines permitted it, most employees had not been in the office since March 2020.

With such a long period of homeworking, new habits and ways of life began to form. Following consultation surveys with ai’s employees during the pandemic, we introduced a new Homeworking Policy that allowed all employees to work from home up to three days per week in response to how the majority now wanted to work. Once the Government dropped their work from home advice, ai was in an excellent position to begin the return to office as there would naturally be a reduced capacity each day.

We understood that not everyone felt ready to return, especially in the face of rising case numbers. However, teamwork is at the core of how we operate. Therefore, it was important to get the team collaborating in the office and meeting the newer team members that joined us throughout the pandemic to build relationships further. With this in mind, we explored ways to help everyone feel a bit more comfortable in their return. One of the ways we approached this was to leave the one-way system and distance markers around the office for a further month to encourage more distancing, and less cross-over as people moved around the office. We also allowed employees to amend their start and finish times for those travelling on public transport to enable them to travel at quieter times.

Ahead of all employees returning, the Staff Council created “welcome back” packs, including hand sanitiser and a £5 voucher to go to a local coffee shop, with the joint initiative to support a local business after a tough year and to encourage employees to go out with other colleagues and start spending time together in person again.

Additionally, we have put new signage in all meeting rooms to remind people that not everyone will be comfortable being in a meeting room together, and meeting organisers should be giving people the opportunity to join remotely, even if they are in the office. All employees are required to book their homeworking days by noon on a Friday for the week ahead, allowing people to see which days are typically quieter and matching their office days accordingly if it suits their preferences better.

ai has been fortunate in that we’ve continued to recruit throughout the pandemic. Some employees came in for their first day when lockdowns permitted, but most have had little to no time in the office, despite some having worked with us for over a year! We have hosted some “new” starter sessions to help facilitate meeting other new starters and members of management in an informal session with tea & Krispy Kreme’s.

Looking forward, hybrid working seems to allow the best of both worlds, allowing a reduction in commute time and cost and the opportunity for greater home/life balance, alongside collaborating in the office and regaining some of the social culture we enjoyed pre-Covid. It will be essential for us to maintain an open dialogue about the return to office experience for everyone and to see how we can help everyone make the most of our new ways of working and ensure that there is enough distinction between home and work life. We’ll approach this through pulse surveys, internal feedback sessions and giving everyone regular reminders to switch off and maintain boundaries.

Overall, the return to office has been a success, and we look forward to continuing to get to know some of our new team members better and reconnecting with the longer-serving team. With an uncertain winter ahead, we feel that we are in a good position to return to homeworking if needed whilst having a blueprint for managing the return.