One company which has remained open for employees is Superdrug, one of Croydon’s biggest employers.
We caught up with Caroline King, Head of People for Superdrug Head Office, based by East Croydon Station, about how the company is helping employees make a return to the workplace in a safe and comfortable manner.
“We’re really aware of how our teams have done a great job in adapting how they’ve worked, but we also know our teams can do some of their best work when they're able to be collaborative,” Caroline said. “We've got people in our team who are starting their careers out who really benefit from being around their peers, so that they can learn.
“We’ve been concentrating on how we can do our best work and deliver for our store teams who have been working throughout the pandemic, as an essential retailer.
“We want to we want to make sure we're doing the right things for them and at the same time we want to help everybody who's feeling a little bit nervous about coming back. If they’re only starting to stick their toe back in the water then coming back to an office, travelling and getting on a train - those things can be a little bit overwhelming if you're not prepared for them.”
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Superdrug’s offices have remained open for those who have needed to come in and Caroline said once people come in, they often rebook to return because of the positivity they feel from being back in the workplace.
“There’s lots of different reasons for that firstly it's seeing other people in real life, not just their shoulders and their head. As humans we all crave connection and sometimes that physical presence is really useful. Virtual calls are great for including people but fatigue can also set in if it’s a large chunk of your day. In more recent times, with the earlier steps in the roadmap, coming back to the office has meant that going out for lunch with their teams over at Boxpark, the Bedford Tavern, or any of the local haunts our teams love so much. And that's really good for lifting spirits too. There is also a benefit in putting that separation back in between your work and your home as one of the things that's more difficult to achieve when you're working at home is keeping boundaries and switching off.”
Work is underway to return the office to how it was pre-pandemic and in updating the risk assessment with the new covid-secure guidance. With most of the team returning to spending the majority of their working week in the workplace they want to make sure the office has all the right spaces and furniture in place. More complex measures such as one-way systems are being removed and messaging will focus on handwashing and cleanliness as opposed to keeping distance. However Caroline hopes the look and feel of the office won’t change too much as many of the measures installed for covid secure guidelines were made to look as if they were part of the office from day one.
And to help employees feel comfortable, red, yellow and green wristbands we had last summer will return so people know how others feel about coming back and if they need a bit more space, without having to continuously explain it.
“We're doing a phased return, so that by the end of the summer, people are back,” Caroline said.
“The office looks like it did the day we moved in, and we've tried to make it easy to keep it clean so our wonderful cleaning team can do a great job throughout the day. There's lots of hand gel everywhere, as well as supplies of cleaning materials so everyone can take a bit of personal responsibility too. We want our team to feel like they've come back home.
“We've got a wonderful café team in house and we've been working with them to create a menu that people will be really excited by when they come back. We used to have lots of events in our café and we’re looking to bringing them back too.
“I'm looking forward to the teams telling us what they think. I describe our office as 500 brilliant personalities – because that’s what they are. They're not shying coming forward so if there's something that they would like, or think is right or wrong, they'll tell us and we’ll keep improving on what we do.”
Caroline added she was looking forward to the impact a return to the workplace would have on the town.
“There's a lot of really lovely, cafés, bars, shops in Croydon, that I think will really benefit when our teams come back. One thing we did last year is partner with the team at Mr Tinto to provide all of our coffee now in house. If you're going to go and buy your coffee from their unit, you'll go and buy it there, but if you don't feel comfortable to go outside and we can help make it more comfortable for you, then we'll also make it available inside.
“I appreciate that sounds counterintuitive, but we're potentially going end up with two different groups of people. We're going to have the people who will come to the office and want to continue to limit their contacts with people, and then you'll have those that will be fine about going out and about. I think everyone, whether that's commercial or retail, can support everyone else in trying to find a way that brings everyone in the town up. Whether that's looking at partnerships or pop ups, Croydon can do that brilliantly.”
Caroline also had another hope for the town – be nice to each other.
“Not everyone will feel as comfortable about being out. So give a bit more space and be kind to one another.”
With flexible train tickets available to commuters, Caroline said she welcomed the move but asked for more joined up conversations and to speak to businesses.
“We appreciate the move to flexible ticketing, but I don’t know if it necessarily supports those who will be working flexibly or in a hybrid way, as well as perhaps was envisaged. And I'd ask them to engage with the business community to improve it quickly.
“In the main the bit our teams have expressed most concern about is using public transport. A large number of the conversations I have with people is, ‘I'm worried about getting the train’.
“Throughout the vaccination programme there were regular conversations between DHSC and businesses which meant we could help with messaging and feed in questions. If Transport organisations supporting Croydon’s commercial centre could take that approach then we could help explain measures, provide information on peak travel times and days, help people know what to expect and provide good feedback.
“It’d also be helpful to know the cleaning regime and information on how busy the trains are or days that are less busy as we could help encourage our teams to pick those days the days that they're coming in while we're building back up.”
And Caroline’s hopes for Croydon in future?
“Croydon is colourful. I love the mural that's now on the bridge when you come out East Croydon Station. I like when the flowers are in full bloom on the walk down into the town centre. I like the colour of it, because I think it reflects the fact that Croydon is a vibrant place it's not a place of grey concrete.
“I'd like people to take care of what's here and look after it and treat it well so that we can keep doing good, positive, wonderful things. I would love for less empty units, so it makes it somewhere that people want to come and spend time.
“We've got lots of new buildings going up which are bringing more people to live here, which adds more people into that wonderful mix we have here. Let's celebrate that.
“And there’s a bit of personal responsibility here too – as we need to think about spending time supporting the businesses locally that we would miss if they weren’t here and supporting the new businesses starting out.”