In early 2020, the COVID-19 crisis erupted and took the business world by surprise. Sudden lockdowns sent employees working from home and managers struggling to reimagine new ways to work. But thanks to technology and remote work, companies were able to contain the disruption and continue operating.
Today, more than a year after WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, we have four highly effective vaccines and 44% of the US population fully vaccinated. Governments worldwide are relaxing restrictions. CDC has updated guidelines to let people remove masks outdoors. Encouraged by these positive signs, companies are now reimagining their work policies and thinking about bringing employees back to the office. Leaders expect half of their workforce back by July 2021.
But there are many challenges ahead. First, the COVID-19 pandemic is not over. You still need to follow strict guidelines to make offices safe for people. Second, employees' behavior and expectations have changed. Some are eager to get back to work, while others are ready to quit if required to come back to the office. Third, there's still a lot of uncertainty and no playbook to manage employees working in different ways.
So, how can you decide how many employees to call in and which ones to let continue working remotely? How can you draft new policies that balance in-office and remote staff? Which HR tools will you need to support hybrid work?
Deciding When to Return to Office?
Having some essential points as a part of your back-to-office guide is vital to ensure a smooth transition. This provides employees with a sense of security and helps the organization remain productive in the long run. Here are some of the key points to consider:
Create a re-exit plan
Employees need to be confident that the organization has a re-exit plan in place in case there is a rise in COVID-19 cases. Identify the triggers and responses for the re-exit plan. Also, you need to continually reevaluate the plan as per the needs of the workplace.
Ensure employee safety
It is not enough to establish safety measures; the employees actually need to feel safe. You must be transparent with information and possible plans so that employees understand them easily and feel secure about them. Build a schedule of training on safety measures if required.
Give employees time
It does not help if you force employees to return to the workplace. If they need some time to get back, don't push it. Let them take their time. In the meanwhile, gather data to analyze employee sentiments about returning.
Once they do return, keep an eye on their comfort and engagement. Use employee feedback to opt for the re-exit plan, if the employees feel unsafe again.
Need for returning to Office
The shift from an offline work ecosystem to a remote work ecosystem was forced by the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. While few companies have worked in the hybrid ecosystem for some time, the pandemic accelerated the acceptance of remote work.
However, as the impact of the pandemic is subsiding, offices are returning to the traditional work models. Organizations and departments struggling to maintain high productivity during the pandemic felt the need to return to the office. While some businesses were able to adapt to remote working, the nature of some other companies forced them to return to the offline setting.
Can remote work be made permanent?
The success of remote work is based on its application in a specific industry. Whether remote work can be made a permanent solution for a particular business depends on the organization's success in the pandemic phase.
For companies that can manage with a remote working model, it is a good alternative. However, those who do not have this liberty need to come up with a back-to-office guide sooner than later.
What’s required in the new workplace?
It is essential to understand the requirements of the new workplace and make the needed changes. This ensures a smooth transition for employees. Here are some of the requirements for the new workplace that you should aim at:
It is important to reimagine and revamp the workplace with the COVID-19 threat in mind. It is one thing to follow government regulations; it is another to make a serious effort to create a safe environment for the workforce. You might need to figure out the cleaning, filtration, and ventilation requirements with the pandemic in consideration.
You might need to revamp the seating capacity to ensure the security of the employees. It will also help if you follow the government guideline of six-feet social distancing. You would also need to get the front office and common areas ready with signs, temperature checks, and sanitization requirements.
Sharing the back-to-office guide details with your employees is essential. It will allow you to explain your viewpoint and make them feel part of the team. Free and open communication will help employees understand and trust the efforts being made to make them feel safe.
Deciding which employees should return first
Deciding which employees should return to the office and which can continue to work in a remote or hybrid ecosystem is crucial in the back-to-office plan. Here are some things that you can consider while making this decision:
Stagger it segment-wise
Most organizations have clarity on the employees' roles, responsibilities, and skill sets. You can use this as a benchmark for creating various segments in the workforce and analyzing your experience during the remote working phase.
The segment of employees that could remain productive can continue to work in a remote or hybrid ecosystem. However, you can plan the return of a segment of employees struggling to stay productive in the remote ecosystem.
Decide based on work, not the worker
Suppose the organization plans to ensure the return of the entire workforce. In that case, the managers and CHROs need to create a business case for the return of employees who have been productive in the remote work ecosystem. It is better to have flexibility in the system and well-informed guidelines rather than rigid mandates. This approach will not put unnecessary stress on the employees.
Help employees mentally return to the office
It is of utmost importance for the HR department to ensure that employees are in a proper frame of mind before returning to the office. If the management pushes them hard to return, it will do more damage than good in the long run. Here are some of the things that can be made part of the back-to-office plan:
Offer a flexible schedule
One of the best ways you can help your employee return to the office is by offering a flexible schedule. The schedule should allow employees to plan their return to their office in a way that suits them. This time will help employees organize transportation, and childcare needs and accommodate the mental transition in the process.
While this approach may take some time initially to help you reach full attendance, it will be helpful for the workforce in the long run.
Organize one-to-one sessions with employees
It is a good idea to encourage managers to organize one-to-one sessions with employees in the team. This exercise will help you understand the concerns of the employee better and address them easily.
For instance, the feedback may point towards the requirement of aligning with a hybrid ecosystem before switching to a full-time office schedule.
Consider a pet-friendly ecosystem
The past two years have been suitable for pets. Employees that are also pet owners may stress about how their return to the office impacts their pets. Consider building a pet-friendly ecosystem that will help remove this stress point from the equation.
It is also essential to understand that well-behaved pets can be a good distraction for the employees at the workplace.
Build a flexible paid sick leave policy
Another good suggestion to build a favorable ecosystem for employees' return to the office is to offer a flexible paid sick leave policy. The last thing you would want your employees to worry about is the risk of contracting COVID-19 due to the limited paid sick leaves available.
When it comes to the potential threat to their livelihood, you should consider offering a flexible paid sick leave policy that acts as a pillar for your back-to-office guide and offers employees additional time off if they get sick.
We recommend you start with drafting and communicating clear policies. Employees that you want back at the office will need to adhere to safety guidelines. Because the pandemic has taken a toll on employees' mental health, they will need emotional and professional support. You will also need to help them discover purpose in life and then provide opportunities to live their purpose at work. Having the right HR tech solutions will be the key to all that.
Follow government guidelines for employee safety
COVID-19 crisis is far from over. It's on a rampage in developing countries. Even in the developed world, where a significant population has received vaccines, the virus is still infecting people. So the first step in returning to the office will be to help your employees feel safe to be back. CDC has clear guidelines for workplaces with hazard assessment, ventilation, social distancing, and cleaning. You should follow these religiously to protect your employees.
You can also ask employees to get vaccinated before they return to the office. A third of employees who are returning to offices think vaccines should be mandatory. In a recent survey, 63% of US companies said that they would require proof of vaccination. You can use this form from SHRM to ask employees whether they would like to get the vaccine.
Create and communicate flexible policies
The future of work is hybrid. 42% of employees would quit if not offered flexible work options. Seeing this new reality, companies have decided to offer a mix of in-office, remote, and hybrid employees. You can draft a flexible policy that you can update as you go for in-office work and communicate that to employees in advance. A survey following Wuhan's reopening found that "engagement and performance were highest when employees had mentally prepared to their return to work."
But, do not let your employees choose their remote work schedules. That will create a diversity problem because single young men can come to the office all five days while women with children can not. Your policy should also make clear whether getting vaccinated will be mandatory for returning employees or not.
Keep the focus on the big picture: Purpose
Most people define their purpose in life through the work they do. Employees who feel living their purpose at work are happier, more productive, and likely to stay at the company. But the pandemic has caused employees to reflect on their life's purpose and reconsider the work to align both. 41% of employees worldwide are already thinking of quitting their jobs. HR leaders have their work cut out: help employees discover their purpose and live it at work.
Flatten the hierarchies for agility
The success of remote work during the peak corona crisis has proved the value of flat hierarchies. Data shows that employees were more productive while working from home. You can build on those productivity and efficiency gains by developing new hybrid structures that provide the same flexibility and agility to the office staff. It will empower managers to take decisions swiftly, and less red tape will keep employees engaged.
Address employee anxiety
Your employees have gone through a lot while working from home: burnout, feeling isolated, and anxiety. Now that some of them will be returning to the office, the new work environment may add to their anxiety. Remote employees will too feel it because of the FOMO effect. A double whammy for managers. Anxiety reduces employees' happiness at work, quality of relationships with colleagues, and work performance.
So, give your returning employees some time to adapt to new ways of working. And organize virtual get-togethers on team levels to help remote workers feel included. Humor is also a powerful tool to make employees feel at ease, unlock their creativity and productivity, and strengthen relationships.
Deploy HR tech to support hybrid work
When the world was under lockdowns during the peak COVID-19 crisis, HR tech kept businesses operating. These tools will play an even more extensive role in the new normal. Here are some essential ones that HR leaders need to support hybrid work:
- Communication tools for video, voice, and group conversations, such as Slack and Zoom
- All-digital recruiting systems with remote interview and onboarding capabilities
- Hybrid-ready continuous feedback, recognition, and performance management tools, such as Mesh and Bonusly
- Digital asset management
Many of the changes that COVID-19 brought are here to stay. So, instead of returning to what used to work, companies can move forward by adopting flat structures and hybrid work.
It's also an opportunity for leaders to shed outdated, inefficient processes and embrace modern ones. While nothing will be the same as before, decisions that leaders make in the coming months will shape the future of work. The suggestions above will help them make better decisions and create a better future of work.