After the mass rollout of COVID-19 vaccines during spring 2021, Americans were looking forward to the end of the pandemic as millions were vaccinated. The optimists included not only individuals but also companies eager to get staff back into offices after more than a year of working remotely. While the highly publicized Delta variant has created uncertainty among employers with respect to their back-to-office plans, many have already reopened, and others are forging ahead with pre-Delta reopening plans. In this feature, we look at how companies that have reopened have fared in terms of logistics, morale, safety, and other issues.
First and foremost, companies need to ensure their return-to-work plans focus on the health and safety of their employees and customers. This means considering vaccination policies and sanitation procedures, as well as keeping an eye on local, state, and federal guidelines related to the ongoing pandemic.
“An employee cannot do their best work without feeling safe in their work environment,” says Jessica Zhao, Chief Marketing Director at Spacewhite. “As an employer, it’s your job to make sure all safety needs are met. This was a huge learning process during the pandemic as our understanding of what was safe became radically shifted. Going forward, make sure to keep up with all public health orders in regard to COVID-19, and other threats to public health.”
Treat the Return to the Office as the Major Initiative It Is
Transitioning a remote workforce back to the office is a major undertaking, and it should be treated like one. This means getting collaboration and input from key members of leadership to coordinate and execute a successful strategy.
“Gather a team and get coordinated,” says Natalie Sheils, Vice President of People and Culture at Mosaic Group. “Bringing employees back to work has to be a well-planned and executed process, as it impacts most functions, departments within the business.” Sheils recommends coordinating with the leadership team and key departments like HR, IT, facility management, financial, and legal to create a plan and process for returning employees back to their physical work settings. They can then look at and consider “current business practices from multiple perspectives and advises on how best to adapt them,” she says. The same group could also be consulted on corporate policy decisions on anything related to returning to work, Sheils adds.
Regular, transparent, two-way communication is essential to getting the return to the office right. Employers can go a long way toward reducing their employees’ stress and anxiety by being as open and transparent as possible with communication and information-sharing. Treat employees like the adults they are, and be upfront with safety, staffing, and other concerns.
Similarly, employees should be encouraged to provide as much feedback as possible to help management make any necessary policy changes and adjustments. Again, the transparency needs to be two-way transparency.
Effectively soliciting feedback from employees isn’t as simple as asking for it once and expecting insights to roll in consistently. Managers need to continually encourage employees to speak up and create a positive feedback loop by actually listening to and—to the extent the feedback is constructive and appropriate—acting on that feedback.
“Listen to your employees—gather as much feedback as possible to ensure you’re addressing their needs and prioritize accordingly,” advises Maria Aveledo, Chief Business Officer of Octane.
One of the key words used by many of the experts we received feedback from was “flexibility.” Employees’ lives have been completely upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. And while pathogens and communicable diseases don’t care about child care, death and illness in the family, or a spouse’s income in the service industry, employers can and should care.
“Anticipating that some employees will have concerns regarding their return to work and developing response protocols for addressing those concerns was key in preparation to return to work,” says Sheils. “We know by now COVID-19 has had heavy mental health impacts on people. In introducing more change, we had to be sensitive to employee needs and strike a balance between employee safety, well-being and business operational needs.”
In addition to these mental health and well-being concerns, employers should embrace flexibility that improves performance and productivity. For some workers, that might mean returning to the structure of the office, and for others, it might mean the ability to work in a home office.
“The pandemic highlighted how important flexibility is for us and that there’s not just one way to approach everyday workloads or tackle problems,” says James Edge, founder of Crush the USMLE. “Every company should strive to be flexible with their capacity to make sure every employee thrives in whichever environment that suits them better, whether it’s having a bit more time to work at home or providing a positive office environment,” Edge notes.
To What Extent Is Past Experience a Benchmark?
Returning to the office is less of a culture shock in many ways than shifting to remote work. The very fact that employees are “returning” to the office means they’ve been there before. Generally, employees are familiar with the in-office culture, the cadence of meetings, etc.
Of course, many companies have hired new staff since the start of the pandemic, many of whom have never been to the pre-COVID office. Moreover, so much of pre-COVID culture has changed, and attitudes around meetings, sanitation, etc., have all been impacted. This means that past experience with pre-COVID, in-office work is valuable, but employers shouldn’t expect things to go back to exactly how they were pre-pandemic.
Learning from the ‘Early Adopters’
When companies began shifting to completely remote work arrangements at the start of the pandemic, few had managed a completely remote workplace, but many had managed some portion of their staff remotely for years. This provided at least some experience to work with when dramatically expanding remote work.
Similarly, while the general policy for companies that could accommodate it was to shift the vast majority of the workforce to remote work, there were many exceptions. Some functions, such as IT, maintenance, and others, necessarily remained on-site, and other organizations made exceptions for key senior staff to remain in the office. This means that companies aren’t necessarily starting from scratch when it comes to bringing staff back to the office post-COVID. Companies should strive to learn what they can from those who have come back to the office early, as well as those who never left.
Bringing staff back to the office post-COVID is not as simple as e-mailing the team and letting them know the building is open again. For most companies, the post-COVID office will look very different from the pre-COVID office. Fortunately for readers, many companies have already started bringing staff back, while many others have spent a great deal of time and mental energy planning for this return. These insights should be carefully considered for others on the cusp of an office return.
What steps are you taking to bring employees back to the office safely and productively?