As the effects of the COVID-19 crisis begin to wane, it looks like life in the United States will be back to “normal” very soon. As businesses begin to open, the reality of what their new “normal” will be is still taking shape. Employers are challenged with the task of figuring out how to successfully transition employees back into the physical workplace. While some employees are ready to be back in person, others are perfectly happy to remain at home – out of continued pandemic anxiety or simply higher productivity and satisfaction with remote work life.
Work environments simply will not look the same as they once did. The world has changed. At this moment, for many employers, there is a delicate balance to be struck. There is a very real danger that forcing employees back into the office without proper adjustment and consideration will overwhelm top workers and harm company culture overall. On the other hand, businesses are anxious to get back to a pre-COVID world and may even be struggling under the remote approach to work.
Here are some tips for helping employees transition back to the physical workplace.
Communicate Openly and Show Support
A good old-fashioned company town hall can do a world of good when helping employees transition back into the physical workplace. Regularly checking in with the workforce on this level establishes all-important trust and the opportunity for managing with empathy. In order to make the transition back to the office successfully, there are three areas of communication that employers should emphasize:
- A detailed return-to-work plan
- Totally transparent communication
- Taking the temperature on employee feelings and expectations
Here are the facts: The American workforce has just survived a global pandemic and is rattled to the core. Humans are incredibly resilient and the pandemic has resulted in individual employees finding a wholly unique professional and personal plane of adaptability. Regardless of how an individual employee feels about returning to the office, anxiety abounds. Some workers may still have health concerns attached to the coronavirus. Many workers may now rely on their remote schedule, as part of their childcare and family welfare strategy. Others have lost a loved one to COVID-19 and are struggling with loss and grief. As an employer, having a detailed return-to-work plan can address some of these concerns and give struggling workers the opportunity to plan for their wellbeing.
Employers should consider discussing the timeline of a return with their employees. Establish protocols and policies that reflect what the company culture is now and not what it was in 2019 and early 2020. Employers should communicate what their employees can expect in terms of desks and office layout, sanitary and hygiene precautions, and any staggered, alternating, or flexible work schedules. It’s an option for employers to err on the side of caution as they’re phasing in this transition.
Above all, transparency is key. Senior leadership can help their employees transition back to the physical workplace by frequently checking in and offering updates. Additionally, more frequent communication will give employers a chance to gauge how their employees are feeling and what individual circumstances are worth keeping in mind.
Take the Temperature, In Your Company
This bullet is so important, it warrants larger discussion! Apple CEO Tim Cook recently communicated Apple’s return-to-office plan, launching in September. Apple’s plan will require employees to return to the office for three days a week, with some departments coming in more frequently. While this policy is more flexible than Apple’s previous approach to work-from-home, it’s in stark contrast to the industry example set by other large tech companies that have allowed complete, indefinite remote/location-flexible work.
Why does this example matter? Because the employees responded.
Apple employees created and signed a letter in response, citing that they felt “not just unheard, but actively ignored” in terms of how senior management responded to employees’ desire for continued remote work. The letter called for recurring company-wide surveys and more transparent feedback processes, to gauge where employees were on these issues, as well as consideration of the impact of on-site work on families, the environment, and employees with disabilities. This example illustrates the value that employees place in flexibility and the role that feedback and communication plays in a smooth transition. When approaching a return to the physical workplace, employee feedback can be a vital tool for helping to make those decisions.
Understand Your Workforce
Every company and workforce is different. Every department and individual contributor has different needs and approaches. It’s very likely that employees will feel strongly about the future of remote work and part of helping those employees transition back to the physical workplace is determining what’s appropriate.
Consider the industry and job market. A recent study from Gartner found that by 2030, the demand for remote work will increase by 30% as the model becomes more favorable and sought after. Like with the Apple example, expectations for remote work have a lot to do with the industry and what other local or comparable companies are doing. If a company’s remote work policy doesn’t match the standard for the prevailing practice in the same geographic area, an employer could be at a disadvantage for keeping its top employees and attracting talent.
Consider employee productivity. Contrary to what many employers predicted, remote work actually increased employee productivity. Researchers studying “knowledge workers” in 2020 found that employees working at home did 50% more work independently versus having to be asked, 12% more time focused on projects versus meetings and office interactions, and 9% more time communicating with clients. When considering a workforce return to the office, choose a model that fits the work the contributing teams and employees are doing.
Prioritize Employee Well-Being
At the heart of this conversation on helping employees transition back to the physical workplace is an acknowledgment that health matters. Coming off the heels of a deadly pandemic, health and safety are top priorities to employees. These should also be top priorities when orchestrating a return to the office. Employers wanting to return their workers to the office need to create a space that feels safe to employees – physically and mentally.
Taking a systematic approach and openly communicating that approach will soothe employee concerns. Popular strategies include symptom checks, physical distancing in office layouts, staggered scheduling, and personal protective equipment requirements.
Physical safety is just part of the employee well-being equation. Mental health matters have been front and center during the pandemic era. Mental health should be weighed just as heavily as physical wellness, as employers transition back to the office. The pandemic has created a pressure cooker of anxiety, bereavement and uncertainty that will have a long-term impact on employees. Employers will need to be sensitive to the mental health strain employees are under and how added factors like commutes and reduced work-life balance will impact their workers.
Experts recommend putting people first when planning in-office schedules. Flexibility and adaptability have been universal solutions during the pandemic and the same will be true as the public moves towards the new “normal.”. Providing employees with options, a safe space for feedback, and support through culture and benefits will make the transition back to the office smooth and empowering.
Create a Work Environment That’s Worth Returning To
Employers can think of their post-pandemic workplace as a phoenix rising from the ashes. This could be the beginning of something new and better for many companies. The professional world is about to become a diverse landscape of policies, practices, and options. This moment of transition is an opportunity to be a step above the rest.
Through a combination of better benefits, an adaptable approach to work, and a culture that employees want to be a part of, the transition back to the office can be an affirming experience.
People have changed. The world has changed. While this may seem daunting, at first, the strongest employers will recognize that change is positive and presents opportunities. When it comes to helping employees transition back to the physical workplace, it’s important to remember what they’ve been through.
We are all in this together and we can be more.
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