Despite the massive, unexpected shift to remote work in 2020, many companies were surprised to see how well they were able to remain productive at the start of the pandemic and throughout the aftermath. While many employees still work from home, the easing of COVID-19 restrictions and the increasing availability of vaccines is preempting a gradual return to the physical workplace.
While this is good news, it does come with several challenges for business leaders. Remote work drastically impacted the way we work, and many employees and companies will need time to acclimatize to the idea of returning to in-office work environments. Fortunately, there are several things business leaders can do to help prepare employees for a successful return to the office after COVID.
For those companies planning on a post-pandemic return to the office, we’ve outlined some strategies to help organizations create effective in-person work environments and a smooth return to the physical workplace.
Ensure Employees’ Personal Safety
Satisfying all the legal requirements pertaining to the personal safety of employees is one major challenge that business leaders will have to contend with during this period. For one, improved ventilation and social distancing measures are non-negotiables. Organizations must put in place necessary safety measures, precautions, protocols, and rules of engagement to create a safe space for employees to come in and work. Having preventative actions in place to ensure a healthy workspace can reduce the emotional stress employees feel as they contemplate returning to work at the office.
Change Hiring and Retention Strategies
Going forward, there will be a paradigm shift in how employers attract, hire and retain talent. The shift to remote work significantly influenced employees’ priorities and expectations, as well as the overall culture of work. With a return to physical workplaces imminent for many, most employees now want flexible working arrangements that allow them to work from their location of choice some days of the week. Organizations that offer some sort of flexibility or hybrid work arrangement will be miles ahead in attracting and retaining top talent.
Other creative ways to retain talent include solving employees’ apprehension about using public transportation, providing reliable solutions around childcare coverage, and offering access to mental health resources.
Re-orient Employees on Workplace Culture
Due to the pandemic and the subsequent shift to remote work, many employees have become adjusted to a culture of working and collaborating virtually. A return to the office and in-person working may be uncomfortable for some and will require readjusting to the old-new way of working. Some employees may struggle to reestablish camaraderie and build good working relations with team members and the rest of the workforce.
During this period of transition, employees will look to business leaders, HR professionals, and management for direction. Hosting reorientation programs to acquaint old and new employees with the workplace culture will go a long way in smoothing the return to the physical workplace. In particular, business leaders can set up special programs to re-engage employees hired during the pandemic (especially those who may have never set foot in the office).
Bring Employees Back Gradually
Some organizations are considering an “all hands on deck” event to usher employees back to work. In some instances, bringing the entire workforce back at once could result in confusion, disruption, and reduced productivity. Employees need time and space to reacclimate to in-office work and mentally readjust their mindset to the culture shock caused by the extended time away from the office.
Business leaders can also plan their gradual return to the office based on which groups would benefit most from returning to the office and working together in-person, versus which employees are able to work just as successfully in a remote environment. Prioritizing employee needs and understanding what works best for different groups during this transition period will go a long way in helping employees transition to another “new normal.” Encouraging social interactions, happy hours, cross-team collaboration, and other culture-building programs can help accelerate the adjustment process as employees return to the office.
Deploy the Right Technology
As always, technology will play a crucial role in how organizations and employees adjust to these times. Digital tools are indispensable in facilitating seamless interactions between employees, teams, and management from any location. Investing in productivity, collaboration, and workplace analytics solutions offers leaders a data-driven, employee-centric way to ensure a successful return to the office. Workplace analytics can help business leaders ascertain how well their policies are working and identify possible areas for improvement based on the impacts of decisions.
Postpone the Return to Office
With COVID-19’s ongoing uncertainties and many employees wanting to keep the flexibility they gained during the pandemic, getting the entire workforce back to the office may be an uphill battle. As a result, some companies have pushed back their return to office dates. This idea may work well for companies with no urgent reason for returning to the office. Rather than disrupt the smooth workflow established in previous months of remote work, business leaders can decide to postpone bringing their workforce back to the office and take more time to implement thoughtful, tailored decisions for their unique organizations.
The pandemic has undeniably disrupted and shifted people’s expectations around work. Rather than rush employees back to the office, savvy business leaders are building on the lessons learned from the pandemic to understand how they must evolve and adapt to retain their top talent, drive performance, and improve the employee experience. While there are no tried and tested strategies for guiding the transition back to physical workspaces, taking cognizance of employee feedback and providing flexible, adaptable working arrangements will provide organizations with the best chance of success.