As we look ahead to a hopefully brighter 2021, thoughts are turning towards when things can ‘get back to normal’. While the winter months look to be a bleak time for many as a third wave of infections reaches its peak, the start of the vaccine rollout is allowing us to imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when we might once again be able to hug our family and friends, jet off on a foreign holiday or, perhaps less excitingly, go back to the office.

Back in in November, the government told workers in England they should be prepared to work from home until April 2021 and many large companies have accordingly been planning phased returns to work through the spring. Returning to offices and other physical workplaces will not be simple, however, and employers that don’t take proper steps to prepare may be in for a shock.

First of all, they need to ensure their staff feel sufficiently comfortable and confident that the return to physical workplaces can be manged in a safe way. Most working-age adults are not likely to receive their vaccines until nearer the summer, so there will still be a serious risk of infection that needs to be managed. While most responsible employers have adapted their workplaces to enable social distancing, screens and other protections, attaching the label of ‘COVID-secure’ can perhaps be falsely reassuring – no indoor space is truly transmission-proof. Rather it is a question of managing risk and that means being open and honest with workers about what those risks are and the mitigations that are in place.

This should extend to workers activity throughout the whole of the working day, not just in the office. It is no use forcing workers to follow strict guidance to the letter while in the workplace, scrupulously keeping their distance from colleagues, if they then all go home at the same time at the end of the day, congregating close together to chat at the bus stop or car park. Employers should make sure they have comprehensive guidance for all their staff, and that this is drawn up in close consultation with workforce representatives to secure maximum buy-in.

There is then the question of which staff to return in what order. If done simply on the basis of having received vaccination then it will be older staff under pressure to return to work first, which could lead to age-related tensions in the workforce. On the other hand, arbitrary choices about which groups of staff to bring back first could fuel resentment.

Staff may also need time to adapt, particularly after so long working remotely. A survey by Simply Communicate suggested that just over a third of UK workers haven’t been back to their usual workplace since lockdown began. By the time of their likely return from April onwards it will have been over a year since they set foot in a shared workplace.

Companies may wish to adopt a rota system, whereby certain teams or staff members rotate which days they are in the office versus working at home. This would help to both keep workplaces from becoming too overcrowded and support social distancing, while also helping psychologically ease workers gradually back into working on-site.

It would help greatly ease the return to workplaces if employers can explain, clearly and coherently, to their workforce why it is that a return to physical workplaces is important. This, of course, requires employers to have actually thought through the reasons themselves, rather than reflexively assuming that a return to the status quo ante-COVID must by definition be desirable. If there’s one thing 2020 has proven beyond doubt, it is that many companies can no longer credibly claim their workers ‘need’ to be on-site every day.

That’s not to say that there are no good reasons for reopening workplaces; better teamwork, ease of communication, a stronger sense of community and enabling informal conversation, not to mention easing the burdens on those less privileged workers who may have a non-ideal home working environment. All of these and more could be convincing reasons, but they have to be considered in the circumstances of each employer and balanced against the benefits of continued home working.

In the longer term, many firms may be better off with hybrid working, where most staff can work flexibly a few days in the office and a few days from home. Surveys suggest this is what most workers would want in an ideal world, and there are reasons to think it may best capture the benefits of both forms of work, maximizing overall productivity for the employer. The ‘office’ in this case will evolve to be more of a hub for collaboration, planning and discussion, while individual ‘work’ is largely done from home. Of course, the best approaches will vary significantly across sector and type of firm, but in each case the right balance will be found most easily by an open-minded consultation between employer and workforce.

Finally, the COVID crisis has revealed to us beyond all doubt the importance of mutual trust between those at the bottom and those at the top. Just as the government’s ability to trust citizens to follow restrictions depends also on citizens’ trust in the government’s decision-making, so too with employers and employees. And nothing is more corrosive for workers trust in their employer than the sense that the employer doesn’t trust them back and feels a need to closely monitor their every move. With a high degree of remote working likely for the foreseeable future, employers face a stark choice between greater trust and flexibility, or greater monitoring and control. To rely on the latter option would be a great mistake, that leads only to a collapse in engagement, innovation and a struggle to retain staff.

Jenny Perkins, Head of Engagement at Cirrus consultancy, explained in an interview for the Huffington Post how for so long many firms “felt that for employees to be really productive, they needed to be in the office. All too often, this stemmed from a lack of trust. Many managers like to see where their teams are and what they’re doing.” The lockdown, however, upended this traditional approach, as managers had to learn to “let go” and “become more flexible”. “Trust and flexibility are key as we take tentative steps back towards the office,” she added. It is important that firms hold onto these lessons of the past year as the world begins, slowly but surely to re-open. Not a ‘return’ to the old ways of working, then, but an arrival at a new and hopefully better way of working for the future.

Patrick Brione is Head of Policy & Research at the IPA