The COVID-19 pandemic has turned everyday life upside down. Millions of Americans are now working from home. And while the current pandemic will certainly end, the transition back to “normal” life is likely to be gradual, with many predicting that the “normal” we once knew is a thing of the past and that the workplace employees return to will be forever changed.
This situation presents multiple challenges for HR teams looking to transition their staff members back to on-site work. Whether they have been furloughed or transitioned to working remotely full time, re-onboarding needs to be well planned and effectively communicated. In this feature, we discuss some best practices, including input from industry experts.
Be Cognizant of the New Normal
Few companies will be unchanged when they start to bring employees back to work. Those that assume they will be unchanged are likely to be unprepared for the new normal.
Jessica Lambrecht, founder of The Rise Journey, suggests being cognizant of staff’s potential questions and concerns when planning necessary updates to policies and available employee resources.
“When handling onboarding after furlough, focus on the employee experience,” she says. “What have they been doing during their time away from the office? Are they facing undue stressors, like sickness, caring for loved ones, or reduced or unavailable childcare? Imagine their experience and anticipate the questions and concerns they will have upon returning: sanitary guidelines, hygiene measures, sick leave, health monitoring, interactions with others—such as customers, vendors, or other employees—expectations for compensation, and more.”
In times of great uncertainty and change, transparent communication is especially important. The pandemic and the government and business response to it have put incredible strain on the economy.
Many companies may have bad news to deliver to their staff. Some employees may not have jobs by the time the dust settles. Companies owe it to employees to be transparent and upfront with their future plans and the status of jobs.
“For companies that have furloughed people, the best practice is for leadership to issue an internal statement to everyone, so all employees know: ‘We plan on bringing back 50 percent of employees, and here’s why’ or ‘we are only bringing back departments that generate revenue,’” says Leeatt Rothschild, founder of Packed with Purpose, a corporate gifting company with a social mission.
Doing this, says Rothschild, ensures that everyone is on the same page rather than only those who were impacted. “It’s crucial not only to reach out to the full organization, but to explain the rationale for whatever decisions are being made,” she says.
Health and Safety
While the COVID-19 pandemic came on suddenly, it is generally agreed that it will not go away as suddenly. Instead, it is likely there will be continued risks of transmission even after the peaks of infections have passed and staff are brought back to the workplace in many companies.
Employers should closely follow the advice and recommendations of state and local health authorities, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. This might include providing ample access to hand sanitizers, avoiding large-scale company gatherings, and holding meetings remotely when possible.
“The days of employees packed tightly into the traditional bull-pen setting or meetings in small conference rooms may be over, because we all need to do what we can to avoid another public health crisis,” says Barbara E. Kauffman, president of Executive Women of New Jersey (EWNJ). “We have learned that employees no longer need to be sitting next to each other to work together effectively. Businesses should consider allowing some employees to continue working from home to ensure that social distancing is present in the workplace.”
Changed Workloads and/or Job Descriptions
Some companies have seen demand plummet as a consequence of the economic impact of COVID-19. Others—like companies providing personal protective equipment or online tools to support remote work—have seen spikes in demand. In either case, job descriptions and workloads may have drastically changed. Employees of companies that have seen layoffs may be taking on additional responsibilities formerly handled by laid-off employees. Those whose companies have seen spikes in demand may find themselves struggling to keep up with new demands.
Employers need to be aware of the possible stresses either situation can cause and be clear with staff regarding changed or additional responsibilities and whether the company plans to bring on more staff or shuffle workers internally to help address the changed workload.
Designated Transition Team
Some experts recommend designating a team to lead the transition process rather than leaving that task to individual managers or departments. This helps ensure a coordinated and well-thought-out transition strategy.
“Companies need to form a re-entry committee or task group to prepare employees and physical locations for the new working world, following the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Reneé Zung, vice president of Keystone Partners.
“This committee at the very least will need a member from HR, facilities/operations, legal and management,” she advises. “The newly formed committee or task group will need to re-configure physical office space, limit large meetings in a single conference room, stagger work hours and days and provide protection and daily sanitizing of workspace in accordance with the CDC guidelines for social distancing.”
“While we are all looking forward to business as usual, the business day and office will look and feel different,” Zung adds. “Precautions need to be taken so if or when the virus rebounds we are ready.”
The COVID-19 pandemic will not last forever, but it will also not subside as quickly as it emerged and spread. Business leaders and HR departments have a number of challenges and considerations to keep in mind when transitioning staff back to on-site work or bringing them back from furlough.
It’s crucial that companies understand they will likely not completely return to the pre-pandemic “normal” and that they need to be conscious of the concerns and anxieties of their staff, as well as ensure transparent and effective communication to help address any issues.