Employers are planning return to work but not a return to the past

Whether you work in retail or an office setting, the past few months have been a whirlwind of change. None more so than how we work and interact with other people. For those fortunate enough to avoid health concerns and job uncertainty, you would think planning the return to work would be straight forward. Not so.

Return-to-work or RTW new in-office standards supporting COVID-19 are rapidly evolving. As employers and office managers, we are all doing everything possible to adapt, stay informed, and support our employers and clients. Months back we sent our folks home and we all stayed home. Now we are all trying to envision and execute plans that return our people to a working world that includes riding public transportation, walking in and out of buildings, and in-person goods and services transactions. 

If you’re running a small business like me, be it operating a for-profit or non-profit, there are important updates to track. There are also many changes we need to make to keep pace, be it a business pivot, an eCommerce presence or swinging open brick-and-mortar doors that best ensure personal safety and security measures. We undertake all these new strategies as we crank up revenue streams.

As an employer, there is much to consider when deciding when and how to invite your colleagues and employees to return to offices following the COVID-19 pandemic.

New and impactful common area normals:

  • Avoid contact
  • Limit sharing
  • Always maintain a social distance 
  • Wear a mask when in close proximity
  • Sit in every other seat
  • Limit people in common areas

Though timing and specifics of reintegration plans will vary based upon geography and the unique needs of one’s company, you should consider how decisions impact productivity, efficiency, engagement, culture, collaboration, connectivity, and more. For one, there will be a wide range of emotions that employees have about returning to the office. There are practical, logistical and operational issues that must be taken into consideration. You must develop a reintegration framework for reopening offices effectively.

The workplace will without a doubt look, feel and operate differently in the coming days, weeks and months. Take it a step further, and we cannot even say with confidence to our teams when we will fully return or the extent to what returning even is. There is an old Yiddish expression, man plans, God laughs. Well said.

Common observations that employers are making to support return-to-work:

  • Be transparent in your communications. Recognize the unknowns and fluidity of the moment — blog or email more regularly. We all want to stay connected. Share what you know and admit what you do not know.
  • Acknowledge the moment and redirect your people investments — shift from ping pong and beer kegerators to gift cards and face masks.
  • Lead with empathy — recognize that everyone is seeing and experiencing the moment differently and let everyone know it is ‘ok.’ 
  • Be flexible — be okay with goofy office hours for a while. Reduce and prioritize workloads during re-acclimation periods.
  • Look for opportunities — as with any change, there will be opportunities to seize. Encourage sharing. Who knows where your next product or service, or important employee benefit will come from.

Employers big and small are consulting legal, human resources, and facility experts. A few keys I have noted we need to ready (if you’re an employer) or be ready for (if you’re an employee):

  • Disclosure form or email — expect to receive and in some cases be asked to acknowledge your comprehension of the change and your agreement to follow the updated conditions and personal expeditions.
  • Signage and directionals — expect to see and be asked to follow new in-building, in-office guidelines. These changes could include set pathways in the office or reduced numbers socializing in the break room.
  • Sanitation and cleaning supplies — expect to see and use products once kept hidden away. Sanitation wipes may be common area centerpieces with new expectation for people to wipe down doors, white boards, and countertops.
  • Spacing and separation — expect office logistics to include new measures that best ensure six feet of physical distance in common work areas like cubicles. Do not be surprised to see new permanent clear shields mounted between you and your colleagues.
  • Group (re)think — expect less office meetings, gatherings and services encouraging common activity. Coffee services, for example, could be put on pause or simply eliminated to avoid touching the same objects.

We are asking our colleagues to step forward into a working environment with new norms and new rules, where change has become a constant. For a while at least, everyone should expect a different pace. Public transportation will be slower as commuters will be asked to walk in single file lines, reduce numbers in common transports (buses, trains, cars), and to maintain sufficient seating. Elevators will limit numbers of people, tight hallways will be single file line oriented. Bathrooms built to service many people, may require one person at a time. Times are a changin, for sure.

As we look ahead at planning work-life in office settings, transitions will be anything but business as usual. Certainly through the end of 2020. Possibly forever. We do not need to look back too far to recognize how quickly we collectively adopt to change. Think about the airlines industry. Taking your shoes off that first time was unnerving. Unproductive. But we did it. We adjusted the process and innovated to make it work. Keep remembering change like this and how well we adapted as we confront a future where we take everyone’s temperature before we step into a building. Now get ready for it.

A long way of saying, we all need to be empathetic, especially us, employers. We also need to be self-aware and patient, not just with others but with ourselves. Returning to work will be awkward and creaky, at least for a while. Much continues to be asked of us. We will face a new normal in our workplaces that will undoubtedly keep changing with new rules and regulations. I encourage you, as I encourage myself and my teammates to set aside work time to recharge and reflect. Go easy on yourself — and others. Build in time to socialize with others and absorb not just what, but why all this change was put in place. It will at first seem different, but in no time, it will be just like taking off your shoes at the airport.

What are your plans? Please reach out, share or comment.