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Giving your colleagues a voice during COVID-19

In this blog, Anusree Saha Williams, Internal Communications and Engagement Manager at Bruntwood, shares how the company has shaped its approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing on people who are at the heart of their growth strategy.

The tail-end of August...the end of the summer holidays was fast approaching, and plans were in place to safely re-open schools. There was a definite “new school year” feel and a return to much-needed routine for adults and kids alike. Importantly for Bruntwood, this signalled a cautious phased return to our offices and cities.

I’m sure many of you will be well versed on the impact that lockdown has had on our cities; with a number of big businesses closed for the foreseeable future or, like Arcardia Group and Debenhams this week, closing permanently. For Bruntwood, offices are what we do - we have over 100 landmark properties in Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Leeds and nearly 1,000 colleagues. Alongside that, our business is all about Creating Thriving Cities and we simply can’t do that from our kitchen tables. So now more than ever we are feeling the burden of responsibility to help bring our communities back into the cities. And it started with bringing our colleagues back into our offices first - safely and as and when they were ready…

Adapting to a new routine

Over the past eight months or so, COVID-19 gave us all time to pause and reflect on how we do things. The value of the right work/life balance was highlighted with most of us enjoying the flexibility that extra time at home gave us to manage our lives more effectively.

Equally, for many, the “novelty” of working from home has worn off - distractions, lack of access to equipment, poor internet connectivity, a suitable space to comfortably work, and that blurring of work and home life.

So, for every premature article in the press about the “death of the office” - there were nearly twice as many extolling its virtues. Those articles told us what people were missing about the office, and it's no surprise that it’s exactly the same things our own colleagues told us when we surveyed them to help shape our own return to work programme. 

  • Social connection
  • Collaboration
  • The creativity, energy and innovative thinking that a shared space can spark
  • How this can combine to support better mental health and wellbeing and improve our ability to adapt and evolve

We were also conscious that many of our colleagues also told us they wanted to continue with the choice and flexibility that they had enjoyed during lockdown. With our colleagues’ feedback in mind, as well as an eye on what our cities needed to bring life back into them we started to ask all of our office-based staff to look to come back to our brilliant spaces and places for part (or all) of their working week.

Preparing for our colleagues return part 1 - listening

It started by listening to them. Right from the very beginning, we gave colleagues as much opportunity to have their say and help shape how we brought them (and our customers) back into our buildings and back into our cities safely.

We ran a number of pulse surveys specifically on return to work - asking how they felt about coming back, what they were looking forward to, what they were worried about, and what they expected to see to keep them safe while in a Bruntwood building. We hosted several colleague forums and our CEO hosted a special Return to Work coffee morning, all to help better understand and shape our new future ways of working in what we thought was going to be a post-COVID world. Our ideas and feedback platform proved to be a great source of inspiration with some fantastic ideas taken forward by our Risk and Operational teams to make our spaces even more COVID-secure.

Preparing for our colleagues return part 2 - making our brilliant spaces and places safe

Bruntwood’s Return to Work programme was devised by strategic, steering and implementation groups sponsored at Board level, with meetings taking place three times a week as preparations began for lockdown to be eased in line with Government guidelines. Our Risk and Operational teams were crucial in ensuring that all the controls and measures put in place were to the highest standards, and the processes that wrapped around them were robust enough to manage all potential scenarios including the worst case.

In addition to that, key workstreams were delivered around best practice and in line government guidance including space planning, hygiene, cleaning and sanitisation schedules, office operational readiness and people planning and risk assessments. We focussed on colleague health and wellbeing support including flexible working patterns, use of new COVID-19 leave for childcare and caring responsibilities, and access to mental health support, wellbeing and health resources. We also developed and implemented a robust track and trace and escalation process.

In addition, we worked with the British Safety Council to have all of our spaces and COVID safety processes assessed resulting in a positive COVID-19 assurance statement. They reviewed the whole of our COVID response from safety measures, risks and controls to communications and training. The BSC statement confirmed we worked to the highest standards possible (and in some cases our processes were the best they had seen - a great reflection of the business’ hard work) providing colleagues and customers with additional expert reassurance as we began encouraging them back to our offices and buildings.

In recent weeks - with increasing case numbers - these various safeguards have proved their worth following a number of instances of confirmed cases where we have been able to keep our communities informed, support impacted colleagues and customers and implement any follow-up action in our buildings swiftly.

To see how we applied all of these social distancing and health and safety initiatives “in real life” - take a look at this short film that demonstrates the steps taken in our head office in Manchester city centre.

Confident that we have all the right measures in place, working as they should, the communications programme for Return to Work began a month before our official “re-opening”.

Preparing for our colleagues return part 3 - sharing the details

Communication has been a key part of Bruntwood’s Return To Work programme, with a full suite of materials made available via our intranet and other channels.

As part of that communications programme, we created a guide for all Bruntwood colleagues - “Our spaces and places – ready when you are” – explaining the preparations that had been made for people to return to their offices and how we expect them to use the spaces to maintain that safety. The guide supported colleagues through the whole “return to work” process right from the very beginning.

We covered every part of getting ready to come back into our buildings - the factors colleagues need to consider and plan for as they return, such as childcare, caring responsibilities and their own health, mental health and wellbeing; planning their commute; and planning their working day to make the most of the time they had in our spaces.


We also ensured they were fully briefed on what to expect and how to work with our new-look spaces - how all the COVID-safety principles had been applied and how to move around and use the spaces safely, providing plenty of support as they got used to a new way of working.

We set up “welcome back” check in Zoom calls and e-learning modules to reiterate key safety messages and supported our managers with a team-talk-toolkit to help them start conversations with their teams on how to stay safe and how they would now like to establish working patterns and team ways of working.

With so much information and support provided, which was reiterated on a regular basis using different channels and mediums - it provided colleagues with the reassurance they needed that they were coming back into a safe, comfortable and welcoming, but still creative and collaborative working environment.

We had started encouraging colleagues back to the office in July, in line with the Government’s easing of the first set of national restrictions, and despite summer and school holidays, we saw increasing numbers of colleagues using our spaces on a more regular basis - giving everyone the confidence that we were getting things right.



From September we stepped this up a gear. We asked colleagues to base themselves in our spaces for at least three days a week, bringing us closer to our pre-COVID working pattern and taking advantage of our creative stimulating space for colleagues to gather for collaborative projects; or quiet focus rooms where you need some time away from the hustle to just get the job done.

The rest of the week - colleagues were free to work wherever suited them best.

With our physical spaces now COVID-secure and colleagues comfortable in them, but against the backdrop of a rise in cases across the North West in particular, the focus switched to how we best embed a new safety culture and one that colleagues can feel comfortable speaking up in.

Preparing for our colleagues return part 4 - keeping our Bruntwood communities safe and healthy (both physically and mentally)

Our safety culture hinges on three key principles

  • Keep your distance
  • Follow the buildings’ COVID-19 secure rules and controls
  • Remember to wash your hands thoroughly and regularly

In October, this became critical as three of our regions entered Tier 3 restrictions and in November, England was once again in lockdown.

Our safety programme went on heavy rotation with screensavers, videos, leadership blogs, workshops and colleagues forums, as well as guidance for those who are struggling to get to

grips with what they could and couldn’t do under Tier 3. We’re further developing our ‘speak up’ culture that allows colleagues to comfortably challenge and call out poor safety behaviours. With some complacency around the rules beginning to set in - combined with those increasing case numbers in the wider community - this will be a real focus over the coming weeks and months.

Equally important is our ongoing focus on colleagues’ mental health and wellbeing – with lockdown and ongoing restrictions in place as we head into the colder, darker winter months. We’ve refreshed and are relaunching our wellbeing package with more support through our Employee Assistance Programme and their dedicated wellbeing app; we were working in partnership with Able Futures, and a host of others to offer more mental health support options; and we’re expanding our wellbeing library to provide resources around physical health and fitness, childcare and carers, financial health, bereavement and relationships.

Supporting our colleagues during lockdown 2.0 - giving our colleagues the choice of how and where they work

With rising cases of COVID-19 across England by late October, more stringent restrictions were introduced across England from the beginning of November. Whilst this was a body blow for our cities, we had been listening to colleagues who were telling us that this “second wave” was beginning to impact on their levels of anxiety. A recent pulse survey highlighted a significantly higher level of concern about the impact of COVID (on themselves, their friends and family, and the business) compared to March and April at the height of lockdown.

With increasing positive case numbers and the implementation of Tier 3 and then national restrictions with the advice people should work from home if they can - we once again refreshed our COVID approach and at the heart of that was choice.

For our operational colleagues, whose jobs can’t be done from home, we’ve put in a series of extra safety measures to further protect them and reduce the risk of any transmission whilst in our buildings.

For our office-based colleagues, we’re strongly encouraging them to work from home (though we have COVID-safe exceptions in place to better support our construction teams and projects) and we’re continuing to support them in being able to manage that effectively - whether it’s with equipment or furniture, or with flexibility when it comes to caring responsibilities. All managers are being mindful of when and how they ask colleagues to work based in our offices - understanding that some will be more anxious than others about coming in. With team collaboration and social connection being one of the biggest draws of the office, we’re also supporting managers in how they can continue to keep their team together and stay better connected.

However, we also know that working from home doesn’t always suit everybody - whether it's to do with the physical working environment, or the impact a lack of social and physical connection has on mental health and productivity. That’s why we have kept our spaces open so colleagues can use them when being at home really isn’t working for them. And of course, colleagues wishing to continue to work from our COVID-19 secure offices for any (or all) can of course do so, so long as they follow our safety rules.

The long term plan - continuing to support our thriving cities

As we’ve always said, Bruntwood’s success is inherently linked to the success of our cities. We have a responsibility to support, enable, empower and influence everything that makes a

thriving city - local businesses and economies with improved opportunities for all their communities. So, whilst things may be on pause for now, as a business we are focussed on the longer-term plan to return our buildings and our cities back to the vibrant places they were at the start of the year. That will only happen if we start to come back into our cities together. After all, we went into lockdown together to protect the country’s health; now we need to come out of it together to protect our cities and our economy.

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Anusree Saha Williams

Anusree Saha Williams, Internal Communications and Engagement Manager, Bruntwood

Anusree has specialised in colleague communications and engagement for the last 10 years; working across a range of industries (and audiences!) including the energy market and financial services. Currently, she heads up internal communications and engagement at Bruntwood supporting around 700 colleagues.

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