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?
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.