With some countries around the world beginning to lift lockdown restrictions, conversations across the business world are starting to turn to the question of “How do we safely and seamlessly prepare for returning to the office after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted?”.
Unsurprisingly, after everything companies and their employees have done to successfully adapt their operations and working practices to social distancing rules over recent weeks, immediately returning to old ways will likely neither be sensible or practicable. With safety being the key priority for the reintroduction to office life, businesses will need to plan thoroughly for the transition period ahead.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and, of course, we all need to be mindful of the latest government health advisories. So, with those essential considerations in mind, from an operational perspective, here are some suggestions to help your staff transition successfully back to an office environment when it’s appropriate to do so once social distancing measures are relaxed.
Implement a dynamic return to office strategy
While business leaders need to monitor government guidelines that might prescribe how to govern workplace social distancing, bringing your entire workforce back to the office at the same time could be challenging. So, one way to mitigate the difficulties of navigating a “new normal” on a large scale is to stagger the return to the office – having some teams come back a few days or weeks before others.
Similarly, depending on the size of your organisation and density of office space, maintaining working from home arrangements across teams on an alternating basis could also make it easier to implement safe social distancing rules. This mostly involves select teams working remotely while others work in-house on any given day.
An alternating approach to remote working might also reduce the risks of staff feeling pressured or overwhelmed by an immediate return to the office five-days-a-week. After all, some families might still be juggling temporary disruptions to childcare arrangements, and public transport systems will likely become crowded again. So, a transitionary period will help everyone re-adjust to the new office-based work reality, post-pandemic.
Finally, if you have developed your technology infrastructure to facilitate remote work, you would do well to continue to leverage these new capabilities as, in all probability, a mix of remote and at-office work will be needed for some time.
Prioritise continuous communication
Preparing for returning to the workplace requires continuous communication. Where, how and when people work in a shared office environment will likely need to change in order to ensure the health and safety of employees. These changes could include new rules around the numbers of people entering kitchens, meeting rooms, distancing between workstations, desk cleaning regimes and best practices for hand hygiene and using facilities, as examples.
Right from the start, it’s important to ensure these new workplace requirements are clearly and regularly communicated to all staff so there is no confusion or breakdown in procedures.
Regular email updates, updates on the company’s intranet and social channels, as well as frequent town hall meetings (online or in a smaller setting) could be key elements of an effective communication approach.
As part of your internal communication strategy – and especially within larger companies – it could be beneficial to appoint “lead” staff members. These individuals within teams will be responsible for helping ensure rules are properly understood, enforced and that there is a point of contact for staff who wish to ask questions or raise concerns.
It’s important to recognise that workforces have had to endure a lot of change in a relatively short space of time, which can be incredibly unsettling. On top of this, working for a few weeks in isolation without the usual physical interactions with team members could be potentially detrimental to employee engagement and mental wellbeing.
When preparing for a return to the workplace, companies would do well to prioritise rebuilding staff morale and boosting motivation in the first few weeks of resuming office life. Managing people with great sensitivity and maintaining positivity throughout will be crucial. To help instil a sense of normalcy and engagement, encourage maximum collaboration between individuals (in accordance with social distancing rules), and make sure teams can feel part of company goals and opportunities through regular meetings and communications.
Continuing to invest in technology and offering flexibility will also be important to ensure people can continue to work remotely or on-site, either in accordance with their own wishes or as part of your staggered return-to-office plan.
Hear and encourage feedback
Whether on a company-wide basis or a team-by-team approach, schedule regular check-ins to hear your employees’ questions and concerns.
At all times during this period, maintaining two-way communication with your workers will be essential for keeping up employee morale and ensuring clarity. For example, if some employees aren’t comfortable with coming to the office every day, these individuals should have plenty of opportunities to have their concerns heard and dealt with promptly, respectfully and fairly.
Regular team or company catch ups could also be a great opportunity to hear new suggestions for what could be improved as we all continue to work and learn our shared, post-COVID “new reality”.
Get the right skills
The impact of COVID-19 on jobs has been widespread, and it has affected different companies in different ways – some to a greater degree than others. However the pandemic has impacted your business, it’s essential to ensure that your core teams aren’t left struggling under pressure, or even missing out on new business or development opportunities due to a lack of training or resources.
As workloads begin (or continue) to spike or fluctuate, consider hiring new staff or upskilling existing staff to fill the skills gaps your business needs in the short-to-medium term.
As part of your post-COVID-19 staffing strategy, when preparing for returning to the workplace, it’ll also be necessary to ensure employees who experience changes to their role functions have all the training, support and tools they need to perform their job well.
Address and clarify company policies around illness
To ensure both peace of mind as well as health and safety considerations, emphasise how essential it is for staff to stay home when feeling unwell to avoid the risk of spreading seasonal illnesses around the office.
Because of COVID-19, all companies should be aware of the potential for official workplace health and safety guidelines to be changed and refined over time. For this reason, it will be important to keep up-to-date and continue to communicate with the workforce to encourage compliance and help to develop safer and healthier working practices.
The last few weeks have called for a lot of careful planning by companies and a high level of adaptability by everyone in the workforce. For this reason, as we transition from one “new normal” to another, it will be important to think strategically and methodically about how we can successfully find our way back to a more recognisable work environment.