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► Preparing For A Return To The Office

How prepared is your company for the post-COVID-19 world? We don’t want to convey false optimism, but we argue in this feature that it’s time to start thinking about a return to “normal” for your business.

For a year now, the nation and the world have been in the throes of a global pan-demic that has upended daily life and fundamentally changed the way we live, possibly for good in some cases. While certainly not the most significant impact of the pandemic—millions have died and been hospitalized and infected—the disruption to work life is perhaps the most ever-present for most Americans.

Employees have had to set up home offices, often shared with spouses or doubling as chaotic classrooms for their children; teams have had to learn to function remotely and collaborate through virtual meetings; customer relationships have been strained in the absence of site visits and work trips; and many initiatives, from training to office remodels, have been put on hold indefinitely.

Yes, the Pandemic Will—Eventually—End

While many of these changes may well be permanent, it’s also certain that the world will return to some sense of normalcy in the relatively near future. No, we don’t have any inside knowledge, and yes, we are aware that both President Joe Biden and Anthony Fauci, MD, have suggested a return to “normal” won’t be here until Christmas. But the nation is in the process of rolling out millions of vaccinations, so at some point, this pandemic will end.

The seemingly endless nature of the pandemic and the way it’s been continually extended can make it hard for managers to think beyond the present. Many were told in early 2020 to expect a 2- to 3-week “pause” to allow the curve to flatten before seeing repeated extensions of government stay-at-home orders and company remote work policies.

But it would be foolish to think this will continue forever, and with a target for a return to normal approaching in less than a year, now seems to be a great time to think about what preparations your company needs to make as it transitions back to something relatively normal.

Flexibility

Flexibility is the key word for managers and HR teams as they begin to transition staff back to the office. While the shift from in-office to remote work was sudden and wholesale, the transition back to the office is likely to be more gradual and piecemeal.

Indeed, some teams and individuals may never return to the office full time. Across the country, companies large and small are terminating leases for office space in anticipation of a new normal.

Companies need to be flexible in their mandates for returning staff to work. Many staff, given a taste for remote work, may see an in-office requirement as a deal breaker moving forward. Others may wish to come into the office only part time. Similarly, companies need to be aware that some staff will be comfortable returning sooner than others, and they’ll need to be flexible in their transition timeline.

Creative Teamwork

On the other end of the spectrum are employees who can’t wait to get back into the office, whether it’s because they miss the added structure or the camaraderie or feel like the best collaboration happens in person. But that collaboration obviously isn’t the same if only 10% of staff are back in the office. At the same time, it’s not a realistic solution to accommodate the in-office advocates by forcing everyone back into the office.

Companies will need to be creative in how they manage teamwork moving forward. This might mean one or two mandatory days per week in the office during which most meetings are held. Or it might mean getting creative with hybrid meeting formats that accommodate both in-person and remote staff.

Investing in Telecommunications

One might dismiss the potential challenges of hybrid meetings between in-office and remote staff by correctly pointing out that companies have long conducted meetings with some staff remote and have spent the last year doing so with everyone remote. In response, we would ask, “Have these meetings gone flawlessly? Or could they be improved?”

There are great tools available on the market currently for virtual collaboration, and improvements are being developed all the time as vendors and customers learn from experience. Companies should expect to allocate budget space for new and improved virtual collaboration tools, as well as the bandwidth and equipment to support those tools.

Proactive Supportiveness

Change can always lead to stress, anxiety, and other mental and emotional challenges for staff. The widespread and sudden transition to remote work, along with other potential obligations around child care, was extremely taxing for many workers, not to mention the mental and emotional toll of illness, death, and financial hardship brought on by the pandemic. Companies should anticipate that transitioning back to the office will also be emotionally taxing.

Despite the chaos, many employees may find they miss the extra time with spouses, children, pets, and roommates. Many may be dealing with the death or illness of loved ones. Some may be experiencing ongoing financial hardship. Others might simply have trouble with their work in a new environment.

Companies need to be aware of these potential impacts and ensure managers and HR teams are ready, willing, and able to proactively check in with staff and address any such challenges that might present themselves in this dynamic and often unpredictable situation.

While we want to reiterate that this feature shouldn’t be taken as a prediction for an earlier-than-expected return to normal, the tentative opinion of national experts suggest that return is coming within the next year.

That might seem like a long time for someone missing dining out or international vacations, but for managers and HR teams, it represents a short window of time to prepare for the return of staff, whatever form that eventually takes in the post-COVID “normal.”

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, Contributing Editor.  Ms Grensing-Pophal is an independent business journalist with an extensive background in marketing, corporate communications and employee relations.

[3/2021]

 

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