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New teleworking procedures from 7 September

James Purvis, Head of the Human Resources department, addresses the new teleworking measures

Head of the Department of Human Resources James Purvis in an office
James Purvis, head of the department of Human Resources (Image: CERN)

Further to the Director-General’s message, in this recorded interview, James Purvis, Head of CERN’s Human Resources department, answers questions on dedicated, evolving telework arrangements and other support measures for a safe return to onsite work.

You will find all necessary information regarding COVID-19 on various topics in the HSE webpages and FAQ, and the admin eguide COVID-19 pages will notably guide you in terms of absence management and vulnerability guidelines. For a consolidated quick find , the quick reference guide will lead you to all the resources you need to safely navigate the return to work.

(Video: CERN)

Transcript of the video:

Q: Hello James. Summer has flown by and here we are at “la rentrée” as the French call it, with everyone resuming a ‘new normal’ in our progressive return to full-time work on-site. In this interview, we hope to address as many as possible of the questions that are arising around the plans for this gradual return to work and the changes to the telework framework, given the ever-evolving coronavirus situation. Can you tell us more and explain why these decisions have been taken?

A: Hello everyone, it’s a pleasure to be here to shed light on the current situation. Since the start of the pandemic, CERN’s highest priority has always been and remains the health and safety of its people. That is why the ramp-up has been gradual, spanning so many months.

As the Director-General explained in her video message, since mid-May, CERN has been following a carefully-planned, staged return with due care, monitoring and vigilance with respect to what continues to be an uncertain and evolving context. Given the situation, the return has been more gradual than initially foreseen and this has allowed us to take the steps we’re taking now with confidence that we are doing so safely.

Collaboration among many partners, including the Host States, the HSE unit, the Staff Association, and many services across the site, has been key for us to reach a sufficient level of confidence that the health and safety of everyone can be effectively safeguarded. In this context, I would like to mention that nobody has yet been infected during work on-site.

Following this period, which has been unprecedented and challenging for us all, it is important for everyone across the Organization to start reconnecting with our place of work and with each other, in a context of fairness across the teams in their return to on-site activities while preserving our health and safety.


Q: You speak of confidence that it is safe for us all to return to the site. The situation throughout Europe is, as we speak, a concern. In the light of the past months’ experience, it could be argued that teleworking has been just as productive - if not more so - in many parts of the Organization, so we should continue teleworking until indicators are more positive, so as to preserve the safety of those who have to be on-site: can you respond to this?

A: No decision is taken lightly. The decision takes into account all possible parameters: the evolution of the pandemic, the situation in the Host States and beyond, the enhanced health and safety measures on-site, which are very well followed by everyone, the space organisation, the services and their safe operation, what other organisations in the local area are doing, and so much more.

That is why today we can say we are ready to welcome everyone back on-site, safely, to resume full operations with a minimum of 50% presence where possible, and with a sense of normality.

Full-time teleworking is not an option in the long term. The virus looks like it’s here to stay for the foreseeable future. We are all learning to live with it, and we have all resumed a social life, meeting with our families where possible, with friends, going to the restaurant, etc…, even schools have restarted in both Switzerland and France.

The Organization’s duty of care is to ensure a safe working environment for all, and we are achieving this collaboratively and effectively. CERN continuously reviews and applies the strictest of the measures applied by its Host States to date and will continue to do so. Furthermore, we meet weekly with other organisations in the Geneva area: many of them have already resumed at more than 50% since early July and, like CERN, are ramping up gradually.


Q: In pragmatic terms, in the context of telework, flexible working and work organisation in general, the pulse survey showed how well people adjusted to telework, and the subsequent survey among supervisors confirmed the desire to expand the existing framework. Why not continue where it is possible to do so?

A: So you may recall a little over five months ago, CERN entered “safe mode”. That required the majority of us to stay at home and begin a regime of telework. Looking back, I am very impressed at the agility and flexibility that everyone showed in this process which went very quickly. In collaboration with Management, the Staff Association, HSE and all services around CERN, the HR department implemented the necessary framework and exceptional measures to ensure flexible working as far as possible for those activities that allowed it, enabling those people whose functions were essential for the safety and security of the site and equipment to work on-site with as little risk as possible as the pandemic evolved.

CERN adapted its framework to each and every one on the payroll, allowing them to adjust in their respective work and personal contexts while ensuring operations could continue in the best possible way.

Our presence on-site is essential to the collaborative nature of the work we do, and reconnecting is important for our well-being too. We have all enjoyed resuming our social lives outside work in a more normal setting since lockdown; coming back to the work place is no different.

We also have to acknowledge that telework does not suit everyone. Many people thrived on it, others didn’t; others could not telework at all owing to the nature of their activities. Many teleworked from further afield during safe mode: it is now time for everyone to come back to the local area.

Today, we are reviewing this framework to adapt it to the situation as it is now. With a gradual return to full-time, on-site presence for all, we have to be agile again, and work together, and this is why the decision has been taken for a minimum of 50% on-site presence for everyone, based on the specific context that applies to each individual, each service and operational needs.


Q: How is this minimum 50% on-site presence going to be implemented in concrete terms?

A: The very different nature of activities throughout the Organization means that needs vary and there is no “one-size-fits-all”:

Those who are working 100% on-site (or more than 50%) due to the nature of their work should continue to do so.

Those who can telework and are already working on-site for more than 50% of their time because their on-site presence is needed for the effective operation of the Organization should also continue to do so.

Those who can telework and are not strictly needed on-site for operational reasons should work on-site for at least 50% of their working time.

And then there are key exceptions: Some are vulnerable or living with someone classed as such, some may be in quarantine, some living with people who are observing quarantine. So we have taken all necessary measures to accommodate every circumstance.

Agility is key, in the form of an adaptable approach to find optimal solutions for each and every person and situation, with dedicated telework arrangements, support structures and absence management frameworks that the administrative services will support, monitor and implement.

All departments are equipped and prepared to ensure safe work-space arrangements, as are the hostels, cafeterias, and all common areas where we can at last look forward to informal exchanges at the end of a corridor or at the foot of the stairs, after so many months of Zoom and Vidyo meetings. These will of course continue, where safe physical distancing can’t be ensured but nothing beats the collaborative spirit that we have at CERN: for me, an in-person ‘hello, how are you?’ works wonders.

When I’m at CERN, I see people diligently mask-wearing, physical distancing: it has become our new normal, just as it is in our daily lives, shopping, in restaurants and public transport.


Q: It’s true that we-re adjusting to all this in our daily lives, but there’s still a question around the 50% maximum telework: where teleworking is confirmed as a necessity, for example when the office space does not allow for office sharing, how can we modulate it and are the provisions applicable to everybody?

A: You’ve hit on a real challenge. You know if we had said “everybody’s off-site” it would be very clear, and if we had said “everybody’s on-site” it would also be very clear. But 50% is neither black nor white, a bit like the glass being half-full or half-empty, and some people are going to see the glass as half-empty and some as half-full. The framework aims to be flexible and has to be implemented in line with the needs of the service. And as I said there is no “one-size-fits-all”.

It can be modulated on a weekly basis, on a fortnightly basis. Again looking at the flexibility, the space situation, the office situation we need to find whatever is most suitable, whatever meets the needs of the service.


Q: OK, so it’s context-based, it’s person-based, it’s flexible, it really is modulated for everybody. Can you confirm to whom it applies and for how long it will apply?

A: That’s a good question. So certainly, it applies to everyone who’s remunerated on CERN’s payroll, i.e. the employed members of personnel: staff members and fellows, plus our MPAs for training, i.e. students and project associates. In terms of how long, it’s difficult to set an end-date because it’s an ever-evolving context. We will monitor the situation at CERN and in the local area and keep adapting as necessary and inform everyone in a timely manner.


Q: So James, in the light of all this, there are still people who feel anxious. What message would you give them in their return to the site?

A: I would tell them that we are here to support then, to listen and find solutions together. If you do have concerns, please discuss them with your hierarchy, services, support structures of which there are many. As I just said, no single size fits all and our HR framework for telework, flexible work and absence management is as comprehensive as can be in order to accommodate every possible need. All services are really operating with health and safety as their utmost priority.

The measures we have in place have proven to be effective so far, with no on-site infections for the time being. I trust that everyone on-site will do what is needed to keep it that way.


Q: So given everything we have covered what would you say are the next steps?

A: I think we are all looking forward to seeing people coming back, to those rich informal exchanges and unforeseen interactions that characterise our workplace, but of course while keeping our eyes wide open, watching the evolution of the pandemic and taking the necessary corrective actions should the situation change suddenly.

There are many people and services working behind the scenes in what is a well-orchestrated and diligent approach.

At the end of September, our Director-General and her Directors will host a “Town-Hall” meeting where all questions based on the experience of the first weeks of gradual return can be raised and we will be there to answer, reassure and work together to maintain CERN as a safe place to work.

Thank you James, so that’s a key milestone at the end of September and we can look forward to that occasion to answer or ask any further questions. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us today.