As many workforces begin to transition back to the office, we speak to commercial explosives and blasting specialist EPC-UK to find out how the company supported its employees throughout the pandemic.
The first wave of Covid-19 created what has been described as 'an epidemic of loneliness'* as individuals struggled with social isolation under the strict rules of the first lockdown. As businesses sent employees home to work remotely – often for the first time – normal routines were disrupted and anxiety levels soared.
At Derbyshire-based commercial explosives and blasting specialist EPC-UK, head of HR and IT Julie Wootton and head of health and safety Bob Woolley were determined that no employee should feel isolated or left behind – so the first thing they did was pick up the phone.
'At the height of the first lockdown around 50% of our employees were on furlough; many for business reasons and some because they were deemed vulnerable,' Julie explains. 'So I called every furloughed employee on a weekly basis to check they were okay. Every Thursday and Friday I’d make around 100 phone calls!
'It was really important to be able to check how people were doing, ask if they had symptoms or if there was anything they needed, and just keep in touch – especially as we have a number of employees who live alone.'
As a result of the company’s pandemic response – which has included a carefully thought-out communications strategy to keep all employees on message, plus individualised return-to-work support for vulnerable employees – Julie believes that the employer-employee relationship is closer than ever, even in the context of remote working still being a requirement for all employees who can work from home.
In the loop
When the first wave suspended some work activity and sent many employees home, EPC-UK’s priority was that no one should feel excluded, whether they were working from home or on furlough.
'Our primary concern was the amount of time employees would be away from the workplace,' confirms Julie, 'so we were very conscious that we needed to maintain regular contact with individuals.'
Throughout the first, second and third lockdowns, departments communicated regularly with remote workers on Microsoft Teams, and there were all kinds of “extra-curricular” meet-ups in the form of virtual coffee breaks and quizzes.
To ensure that the company could keep in touch with all employees, including those on furlough, Julie created and leads a WhatsApp group.
'Everyone on furlough has access to it, via work laptops or mobile phones, and we share all company communications to the group,' she explains.
'It means that no one is excluded from the latest safety guidance, company news, wins, successes, and so on. Everyone is kept up to date on what’s happening.'
EPC-UK has around 30 employees who were categorised by the government as vulnerable and required to shield in the first wave. As the first wave subsided and the question of employees returning to work came into focus, Julie and Bob were determined to take a cautious approach.
'I had completed risk assessments and return-to-work protocols for our various operations,' Bob explains, 'and we shared these with our occupational health provider. They were really positive in their feedback, describing them as comprehensive and the best they’d seen, which was great.
'But for our high-risk employees – those deemed vulnerable – we wanted to take a different approach.'
Working with its OH provider, EPC-UK put in place an individualised return-to-work protocol for vulnerable employees. The OH service conducted a 45-minute one-to-one interview with each employee then produced a comprehensive report which included recommendations on whether the individual should return and, if so, what precautions should be implemented. EPC-UK consulted with individuals throughout the process.
'Managers sat down with employees on their return and conducted a kind of ‘re-induction’,” says Bob. “They went through the risk assessments and the measures put in place to keep them safe, so that individuals felt confident about returning.'
'Of the high-risk employees, the majority have now returned to work but a few are yet to return because of their vulnerability. Adjustments made for those returning have included a requirement to work at home; restrictions on travel and customer meetings; and close adherence to the 'hand, face, space' guidance.
For Julie, communication has been key to making the return-to-work process a smooth and positive experience.
'Nobody has questioned the approach because everyone has understood what we’re doing and why,” she says. “It’s been collaborative because of our messaging.'
To gauge employees’ feelings about the firm’s response to the pandemic, Bob put together a questionnaire – with input from Julie – to gather feedback. The survey asked about the measures introduced to keep employees safe: did the company respond quickly enough? Did they respond effectively? What more could they do?
'The responses were overwhelmingly encouraging,' says Bob, 'with 96% of answers being positive.'
Like Julie, Bob cites clear communication as being essential to the EPC-UK pandemic response. He also notes one positive outcome of a difficult 15 months being an increasing willingness to talk about health and, in particular, mental health. More than 60 employees have taken part in Mental Health First Aid training, and efforts to encourage openness about mental health within the company are led from the top, with the managing director talking about it during safety tours.
'The MD has also talked to employees about his own family’s battle with Covid,' notes Julie, 'which has broken down barriers and helped to foster a culture of openness.'
Julie and Bob are proud of EPC-UK’s response to the pandemic but, as the UK eases lockdown restrictions, they agree that the greatest risk now is complacency.
'Shops and pubs might be open, but we haven’t relaxed any measures,' says Bob.
'The job isn’t done by a long way,” Julie agrees. 'We still have two employees to come back, and other employees who will need support post-Covid, so we haven’t taken our foot off the gas.
'We won’t review our measures before 21 June. But even when we do start to relax them, the model is unlikely to be exactly the same as pre-pandemic.'
*Professor Martin Marshall, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, June 2020