In the spring, as COVID infection rates plummeted and vaccination rates climbed, it became a conversation more and more company leaders were having: When can we stage a full return to the office?
In the months since, thanks to the emergence of the highly contagious Delta variant in the U.S. and with some states suffering their worst outbreaks since the pandemic began, the situation has changed yet again. Many workers are seeing their big office return plans put back on pause — at some companies, indefinitely. Other organizations continue to tentatively move forward with bringing workers back via plans that utilize a hybrid workforce model.
One thing is clear — the future of office life remains unclear, and that’s left many company leaders trying to make the best of a deeply murky situation. Other leaders have, in contrast, rushed into premature or ill-equipped office returns, and that carries major consequences for workers who hang in the balance.
To avoid falling into the latter group, there are a few things that should be a part of your return-to-office plan — whether that’s happening next month or next year — according to the experts we heard from.
1. Make a plan for whether you’re requiring proof of vaccination.
A growing number of companies, from major banks to tech organizations, have already announced vaccine mandates alongside their return-to-office plans. And now that at least one vaccine has been FDA approved, it’s expected more private employers (and potentially even certain states) will mandate vaccines. Yungi Chu, the owner of a California-based headset company, is one of them.
“I am requiring all my employees to be vaccinated and return to the office,” Chu said. “Unless an employee has a medical reason why they cannot, it will not be an option (to be unvaccinated). It’s the only way to keep every employee safe in the office and warehouse, especially now with the new Delta variant.”
If an employee refuses vaccination for non-medical reasons, Chu added that she will try to “offer a remote position if it’s available, but those positions are very limited… I realize I might lose some employees, but it’s a chance I must take.” If you are bringing workers back, the safety of those who return is paramount.
2. Take a moment to revisit your organization’s policies and employee handbook.
The nature of our work lives has changed so dramatically over the past year and a half that it’s likely time to revisit some of your company’s policies, if you haven’t already, advised Alec Pow, CEO of The Pricer.
“The pandemic has unavoidably taught us a lot about how to work, as well as the merits and drawbacks of current regulations and procedures,” Pow said. “A company’s Environment, Health and Safety protocols for PPE and medical testing will almost certainly need to be updated, and formal adjustments to employee benefits and paid time off policies may be required. Part-time schedules, maternity and paternity leave, and work-from-home rules may also need to be updated.”
3. Consider adopting a hybrid or staggered workforce.
As Delta continues to bring fresh uncertainty, it’s possible those who are bringing workers back to offices today may see employees sent back home before year’s end regardless. Knowing this, going ahead and making permanent plans for a portion of your workforce to stay remote not only positively influences things like employee well-being and diversity; it also keeps you a step ahead of Delta, Teresha Aird, Co-founder and CMO at Offices.net, said.
“Opening the door to a hybrid working schedule creates a built-in back-up plan for your business in the event of further government lockdowns spurred by the emergence of new strains of the virus,” Aird said. “Having the flexibility to pivot to a remote working schedule on-the-fly is an extremely valuable asset for businesses in 2021.”
And for those who are bringing workers back to the office, a staggered work schedule may be a sound move, advised Shiv Gupta, Marketing Director at Incrementors Web Solutions.
“To ensure the entire workforce isn’t exposed to the virus at once, it would be helpful to implement staggered working,” Gupta said. “Employees can either work alternate days or weeks, or you can stagger shift times throughout the day to decrease crossover time. This will allow time between shifts for enhanced sanitation and cleaning.”
4. On the subject of hybrid workforces, plan to tweak your KPIs accordingly.
Even if you aren’t among those adopting a formal hybrid or staggered working model, it’s likely your full workforce won’t be fully in-person, sans interruptions, this year. For companies where a chunk of workers are remote and others in-person, it’s important to approach things like KPIs with location differences in mind, suggested Daniel Cooper, Managing Director at Lolly.co.
“One thing to put in place before the return are new KPIs to assess employee performance,” he said. “A hybrid office risks creating a gulf between remote and in-office employees when it comes to assessment and promotions. Start day one by assuring staff that they won’t be judged by how long they’re in the office or how visible they are, but rather by updated measurements that may include online time and tangible benchmarks.”
5. Make sure you have the right equipment on hand.
One practical (and critical) step to have taken when bringing workers back is ensuring you have all the necessary equipment to safely operate an office today, Stacey Kane, Business Development Lead at EasyMerchant, said.
“If you’re continuing with your reopening, ensure your employees have the proper equipment to keep them safe,” Kane said. “Consider requiring your staff to wear face masks and encouraging them to wear gloves for added protection… and consider increasing their break periods to account for handwashing and sterilizing their workstations.”
Others suggested putting up screens between workstations, installing better air-filtration systems, using voice-activated, contactless technology wherever possible, and setting up temperature check stations outside of the office. But, as Salman Aslam, Head of Marketing at MuchNeeded.com, added, “just doing these things isn’t enough.”
“Send out a newsletter,” he said. “Let your employees know that you are taking their health seriously.”
6. Create a mini-onboarding program.
For workers who started a new job during the pandemic, they aren’t “returning” to the office so much as they are being introduced to their company’s office environment (and non-Zoom versions of their coworkers) for the first time. And even for those who’ve stayed at the same company throughout the pandemic, returning to the office now is going to feel pretty different.
For that reason, an onboarding program is a great thing to have in place, Heather Reid, Resource Manager at Ukulele Tabs, said.
“What we focused on was reacclimating people to their new working environment after a long time of working in the comfort of their own home,” Reid said. “We allowed some time for them to socialize and reconnect with each other.”
Understanding that it may not be a snap-of-the-fingers transition for some people is important, Stephan Baldwin, founder of Assisted Living Center, emphasized.
“From an employee wellness standpoint, coming back to the office may be just as disruptive as leaving it,” Baldwin said. “You need to make sure you have the necessary tools to help employees transition and reduce stress levels. Make sure you have more one-on-one meetings to check on their wellbeing.”
7. Ultimately, if employees aren’t comfortable returning to the office — don’t force it.
That means taking the time to speak with and understand the needs of employees before making a call, one way or the other, on whether you’ll be bringing workers back.
“Employee safety and a safe work environment have to be the priorities,” Todd Ramlin, Manager of Cable Compare, said. “People who aren’t comfortable in their work environment aren’t going to be as productive as possible. Leaders need to engage with their teams and find out how they feel about returning to the office. The last year has proven that work towards business goals can continue while working remotely, so if your people aren’t comfortable returning to the in-person environment, it may not be a good idea to force the issue.”
Businesses should also consider the issue of the Great Resignation, Ramlin added: “If talented people are already primed to resign, forcing them into an environment they’re not comfortable with may be enough to drive a decision you won’t like.”
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