“Let’s go back.”
This is the unspoken desire of the nearly three-quarters of workers tired of toiling full time from home, per JLL research from October 2020. To be sure, many employees still crave flexibility in terms of occasionally plugging in from desks in their dens or basements. However, they’re overwhelmingly in favor of getting back to what they remember—at least in hybrid form.
Here’s the problem, though: It’s not going to be the same. It can’t be, even with COVID-19 vaccine timetables on the horizon. Rather, heading back will be fraught with new realities, responsibilities, and restrictions.
Of course, that isn’t to suggest that people can’t adapt. They can. In fact, a Drexel University study shows that creative problem-solving—as happened en masse at the start of the pandemic—pings a person’s mental reward centers. Nevertheless, most team members aren’t envisioning a replay of what happened last March and April as they adjusted to the pandemic. No, they’re picturing the “before times.” And that means they could experience some sudden culture shock if they’re not prepared to face the unfamiliar.
As a leader, your role is to make the homecoming process as smooth as you can by anticipating and removing foreseeable hurdles. In other words, you’d be wise to embrace caution and a dash of patience.
Ensuring a Seamless Transition Back to the Office
Reopening is more complicated than just telling everyone to show up a certain Monday morning. Instead, you’ll want to lay out a comprehensive plan. These strategies could be your starting point:
1. Let data drive your real estate decisions. Moving desks apart. Putting up Plexiglas barriers. Hanging social distancing reminder signs. Sure, they’re all part of a safe back-to-work transition. But they’re less critical ultimately than figuring out whether your space makes sense anymore as a whole. If you know 50% of your workforce is going to be working periodically from home, for instance, you probably need to completely change your layout. Perhaps your overall real estate needs have changed, too.
As Occupier co-founder Andrew Flint points out in an article for ValueWalk, however, you can’t afford to underestimate or neglect your real estate needs when it comes to this “next normal.” After all, your real estate is certainly still integral to helping your company reach its business goals. As Flint explains, “Preparing for the coronavirus’s impact on real estate requires front-end decision makers to not only understand what their financial obligations might be for their real estate, but also what rights they might have that could enable them to void or restructure a commercial office lease.” He cites Pinterest’s recently terminated lease—which cost shy of $ 90 million—as an example of the need to carefully map out these decisions and evaluate your corporate lease management.
So how do you come to conclusions on the real estate you’ll need this year or five years from now? Grab historical data and lay it alongside staffing and working predictions. Use real data points to decide whether you need a smaller or larger location, as well as how you’ll set up flexible hot-desking solutions. Taking this initial step before bringing everyone back avoids later disruptions.
2. Resist oversimplifying safety measures. Employee, visitor, and vendor safety are top-of-mind concerns for business leaders. Yet it takes more than temperature scanners and social distancing to lower the likelihood of the transmission of contagious viruses. Even if most people in your office get their vaccines by midyear, you’ll still need to have robust safety precautions in place for quite a while.
To be honest, you might not want to rely on the possible immunity provided by COVID vaccines for at least another couple of quarters. Regrettably, only about 3 million vaccines had been delivered nationwide by the end of 2020, a pale comparison to the 20 million shots planned for the month of December. Consequently, your team members might be waiting for a while for their inoculations.
So what can you do to boost safety measures both ethically and legally? Start by envisioning all scenarios, such as an employee testing positive for COVID-19. How will you enact contact tracing while remaining HIPAA compliant? What will your sanitization methods be after finding out about possible COVID-19 exposure in your workplace? Will you have to temporarily alter your office layout or switch employees’ schedules to protect them? Only after you have some answers to these and related questions can you confidently start inviting remote workers to come back.
3. Prepare for a temporary spike in presenteeism. Even the most engaged employees might fall victim to presenteeism when they first return to the physical workspace. Unlike absenteeism, presenteeism is when a worker is on-site but not contributing fully. They’re distracted and maybe distressed, which causes their productivity levels to dive.
Episodes of presenteeism will be natural reactions in many of your employees—even talented ones with a history of working hard. Be on the lookout for this switch and put measures in place to deal with the issue without pointing fingers.
For example, you might want to go the Microsoft route and offer employees hybrid working arrangements. According to Kathleen Hogan, the tech giant’s chief people officer, allowing workers to seamlessly move between remote and in-person working schedules within manager-allowed parameters supports personnel without affecting the company’s culture.
The good news is that once workers adjust to post-pandemic office work, presenteeism rates should drop precipitously. As long as you’re prepared for the uptick, you can minimize the long-term effects on morale, efficiency, and customer service.
4. Craft and disseminate clear reopening information. Being as transparent as you can, draft up full-fledged reopening documents and messages for your employees. Any information should be carefully worded so everyone understands what’s expected of them during the reacclimation process. And if you’re having trouble pulling together documents or guidelines, get help from your fellow executives from various departments.
If you’re going to have zero tolerance for individuals who refuse to wear face masks, say so. If you expect personnel to clean their workstations twice daily with cleaning supplies you provide, be blunt about it. Will you get any pushback? Perhaps. And that’s an opportunity for you to listen compassionately (and perhaps even make certain concessions or offer alternative arrangements).
Regardless, remind yourself and all supervisors that most employees will appreciate this direction in the face of change; many of your people will have questions that you can answer by being pragmatic. Once team members begin to return, keep the lines of communication open and remain committed to delivering regular updates. A comfortable back-to-work transition is much more likely if you share your plans. Your crew might be talented, but it’s not made up of mind readers.
There’s an old saying: “You can’t go home again.” And it’s true, at least on some level. Your office isn’t going to operate in the same way it did the year before last. Still, you don’t have to give up on the idea of reestablishing a warm, welcoming workplace—just like you had before. Maybe it’s never going to be like it used to be, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.