Michelle Jenkins, from the OPC shares some research findings about challenges faced by transport managers and employees on a return-to-work post-Covid and offers some insights and reflections on the opportunities

The last two years have been a truly tumultuous time for all during the pandemic. In some cases, lives have been dramatically impacted and for some work-life dynamics have changed unexpectedly and sometimes unrecognisably. But, as we approach an end to all legal restrictions for Covid in England – removal of compulsory face coverings; the advice to return to ‘normal’ workplaces and, significant changes to mandatory self-isolation guidelines, what could that mean for us as managers, HR teams and organisational leaders as we emerge post-Covid?

As a team of occupational and business psychologists with over 30 years’ experience working alongside the rail industry, the OPC’s interest is all about peoples’ working world. So, to understand more about a return-to-work post lockdown and its challenges, the OPC undertook some research amongst senior leaders, operational managers/team leaders and frontline staff in the rail and transport industry. The purpose was to understand the challenges faced – for both employees and managers in a return to ‘normal’ work; the impact of self-isolation on work and individuals; and what we can learn for the future

So, what were some of the insights gathered that could support rail organisations as we continue to travel out of this pandemic and what will a return to work look like – hybrid, office or site?

Operational teams

Roughly three-quarters of managers reported that frontline operational staff and site-based staff e.g., depot workers would all return to their ‘usual’ place of employment. However, the other c. 25 per cent of managers reported some unexpected hybrid working i.e., a mix of homeworking alongside their usual location, as well as some other types of return to work like a ‘partial’ return, or a hybrid approach for some ‘on-call’ roles. Some managers also reported a few ‘floating cover’ employee returns that helped fill gaps in other locations vs. their normal place of work.

This different mix of work-return showed flexibility and a problem-solving approach to either unexpected gaps in staff availability due to self-isolation, or a nurturing approach to staff who may have had a change in personal circumstances, additional care responsibilities or medical needs as a result of the Covid pandemic.

Most frontline employees commented that there was little or no difference in their work location – being unchanged between the lockdowns and a return to work.

Office support staff

The return of ‘office’ based (support) staff provided some interesting findings. One third of managers and team leaders reported their support staff would all return to their usual place of work/office full-time. In one-to-one interviews a few managers shared a perceived negative impact in their teams’ working relationships due to the absence(s) from their normal location. They commented that relationships weren’t being made ‘organically’ and there were missed opportunities for a ‘water cooler’ catch up and information sharing. Therefore, they encouraged support functions to return to their usual location to help re-build the ‘office’ environment.

However, more than half (55 per cent) of managers reported a continuation of hybrid working between the office and home as their ‘return to normal’ working. Managers reported influences on the decision such as physical working arrangements for office cover and space sharing; social distancing requirements, or a period of ‘easing’ back into a ‘normal’ work place for an adjustment period if necessary.

This hybrid working for what we may have traditionally seen as core office-based support teams poses challenges and opportunities as we consider the implications on working practices. These may include the effect on organisational culture; employment terms and conditions; how we line-manage staff and provide on-going training; technological requirements for a role as well as the effective use of our office space. We also shouldn’t forget the impact of Covid’s working from home (WFH) ‘successes’ on our search to acquire the best talent for new posts. Job seekers recent lockdown experiences may lead them to look for a much more flexible approach to their working week.

Unsurprisingly, leaders in the organisation, reported a continuation of hybrid working for their return to work. Fifty-five per cent of managers and 85 per cent of directors said they would continue to split their time between the office and home.

Self-isolation implications on safe and effective performance and manager well being
Working in a safety-critical service industry, it’s no surprise that the OPC’s research showed organisational leaders reporting concerns about safe and effective operations due to employees self-isolating, particularly at short-notice. Eighty-three percent of managers felt that team-member self-isolations had a high or medium impact on service delivery. Self-isolation was also noted as being a very time-urgent and unpredictable matter with individuals suddenly not being available for work at very short notice. The vast majority of managers (71 per cent) reported finding it hard to find suitable week-day cover for isolating team-members, with even more managers (86 per cent) reporting it difficult to find weekend shift cover.

Self-isolation and wellbeing – impact on front line staff and managers

The OPC was keen to explore the theme of self-isolation and well-being, and the impact it had on employees and leaders. The questionnaire and in-depth interviews revealed that two-thirds of employees in the OPC’s research reported positively, that their organisations did a good job at communicating information around self-isolation requirements.

Nearly half of all managers (47 per cent) reported having employees or team members express concerns about their own physical and mental wellbeing as a result of enforced self-isolation.

Nearly 60 per cent of managers expressed concern about their own wellbeing, connecting this to the increased pressure of dealing with self-isolation staff shortages. Some respondents shared the immense pressure they felt under to perform and cover the gaps. Many rail managers reported that they’d never been as busy since Covid hit.

Although the end of ‘mandatory’ self-isolation may be in sight, there is still learning to be had from managing the impact of Covid. The Covid virus is unlikely to disappear overnight. Therefore,
organisations will still need to determine their policy on self-isolation for those who test positive. We will still need to protect our frontline employees’ well-being, and also the managers whose responsibility it is to resolve cover for those off sick at short notice. Additionally, the emergence of possible new Covid variants may still necessitate an adjustment in our working practices again.

All mucking in together – recognise the effort
In contrast to the wellbeing and mental health concerns there were general themes running through the research of ‘all having to muck in together’ and ‘just get on with it’ to help complete work and keep rail services running. There was a real feeling of camaraderie and team strength including individuals who shone and went the extra mile. Michelle Jenkins, Team Organiser at the OPC, who completed the research commented:

‘A great quote about teamworking was by Henry Ford who said ‘Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress but working together is success’. Industry leaders should consider how they recognise, applaud and reward the efforts of their people and teams during Covid’

Self-isolation and working from home – panacea or challenge?
Those who were able to work from home whilst self-isolating expressed positivity and a low impact on their work/business operations – adapting to home working and returning to the office or site when their isolation ended. However, some employees reported their productivity was significantly impacted by ‘family life distractions’. In some cases, this exerted additional pressure on them to fit working hours around their family commitments; having a negative bearing on their physical and mental wellbeing. We need to remind ourselves that for those who will continue to work from home (WFH) it may not be the panacea that some might expect. We should be mindful of the ongoing challenges it can also have.

Some positive impacts of self-isolation on individuals/the team

Other reports about self-isolation were much more positive. Some managers stated that some employees’ self-isolation was more of a ‘break’. They would then emerge back at work re-energised, returning to their role with a greater willingness and a mental ‘reset’. Th is was particularly the case for those employees who rarely took a day off and who ‘got stuck in’. There were also some reports of employees wanting to avoid self-isolation because of the financial implications e.g., missed overtime pay or lost earnings due to a site absence for their shift.

A return to work –challenges and concerns

The majority of managers taking part in the research felt it was easy enough to encourage people back to work – reporting they were in frequent contact and ‘kept communication channels open’ with their teams.

However, a third of managers indicated some difficulties in encouraging employees back to work which some attributed to changes in ‘working habits’ e.g., some ‘on-call’ drivers had developed a preference for waiting at home vs. waiting in the office or mess room.

Some employees were hesitant over returning to work with managers due to concerns about contracting the virus – either in the workplace; or via colleagues who may not be as vigilant in their testing regime or during their commute to work.

A small percentage of managers mentioned some employees who were slightly more resistant in returning to work based on time and financial savings they’d benefited from whilst WFH e.g., commuting and childcare cost-savings or ‘spare cash’ for luxuries, food or family activities. Managers also reported some team-members had found a new work/life balance that they were reluctant to abandon, stating that their commute time could be better spent with family instead. However, most managers and employees resolved these through a dialogue exploring possible flexible options, resulting in a beneficial conclusion for both the individual and the organisation.

Some solutions posed by managers to address any hesitancy in a return-to-work

  • Managers and supervisors provided some possible solutions they’d put in place to address challenges their teams felt in returning to work:
  • Maintaining cleaning/Covid arrangements including staggering face-to-face meetings, keeping up with regular lateral flow testing, and ensuring PPE is always made available to staff .
  • Increased 1:1’s to support more anxious team members and providing Occupational Health team referrals where necessary.
  • Maintaining good communication channels with teams particularly when ‘hybrid’ working.
  • A flexible approach to working location and hybrid working to enable social distancing where needed.
  • The recruitment of Mental Health First Aiders – trained team members providing specialist peer support around mental health and/or wellbeing worries.

Dr Stephen Fletcher concluded by saying:

‘Although we’re coming into a period where mandatory government restrictions are being significantly eased, and the requirement for legal self-isolation has been removed all together, the Covid virus is likely to be with us for some time. We need to remain vigilant to the challenges it continues to produce; the impact it has on our front-line employees and be more aware of the impact on our leaders and managers who work to resolve those challenges on a daily basis. We also need to reward and recognise those who regularly ‘step up to the plate’, helping ensure that we continue to run a worthy service for our rail customers in these unprecedented times.’