For many of us, the ‘new normal’ created by the Coronavirus lockdown won’t be feeling so ‘new’ anymore. However, in the fast and constantly changing world, there is always another ‘new’ thing coming our way. By now, the majority of those who have been working throughout the lockdown will have got used to working from home and conducting business virtually. But as the world begins to open up again, how do we all adapt to returning to the physical workplace?
Some companies are estimating that it could take them up to a year or more to get their entire workforce back into the office. Google has announced they’re keeping all their staff working remotely until at least July 2021. Some companies have decided to make the switch to remote working and plan to give up their office space. So, given this gradual approach to getting back to work and to the workplace – face-to-face, remotely or a combination of the two – what should leaders be doing?
Whether you’re an HR leader or a business owner, we have created a guide for you to make sure you’re properly and fully supporting your people through this next stage of the pandemic.
1. Prepare your strategy
The first step has to be to fully develop a plan on how you’re going to get your team back to work. Consider how you’re going to make the workplace safe and hygienic – do you need to rearrange desks in order to keep to social distancing? Will everyone need to wear masks? Are you going to resume face-to-face meeting with clients? If you continue working remotely how will you ensure people connect and work together well?
Your back to work strategy also needs to consider whether you’re going to bring everyone back at once or take a staggered approach. Not everyone will necessarily be ready to get back to work at the same time, as some may still be shielding for medical reasons and other may be limited by local schools and childcare.
For organisations where the workforce is all based in one area, this may be reasonably straightforward to consider. However, people in different countries – and even regions within the same country – may be living under different rules or restrictions. Additionally, the speed of change means that you may have to update your plans more than once before actioning it, depending on how lockdown rules relax or tighten. The pandemic isn’t over yet, and you need to be prepared for some places to return to local or national lockdown.
2. Set expectations through clear communication
Having difficult conversations and supporting your team through change are important and fundamental skills for leaders to know. The key points for now are to focus on clearly outlining what’s going to happen in the short, mid and long term. Establish as early as possible what will be familiar when they return, what will be different and what are the most likely next steps. Make yourself as available as possible to answer questions and address any concerns or anxieties people may have.
When answering questions, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need to have all the answers now. Your plan for getting everyone back to work should be wide ranging and well thought out, but the global situation is unpredictable and fast changing, it’s better for you to tell people you don’t know something, than you make a promise you can’t keep. Transparency will be noted and appreciated.
3. Treat your workforce as individuals
In the day to day workings of business, it’s unfortunately quite easy to forget that every employee and team member has their own unique lives, families, challenges and anxieties. However, now many of us have caught a glimpse of our colleague’s homes during video calls, and heard children and pets running around behind important meetings, leaders can no longer justify treating everyone’s situation as the same.
Everyone has been affected by the pandemic, but not everyone has been affected equally. Some will have enjoyed lockdown, finding time for new hobbies and catching up on Netflix, while others will have had to juggle home schooling with work, suffered tragic losses and struggled with mental health. Don’t expect everyone to be back at their best immediately. Even if you bring everyone back to the office at the same time, it doesn’t mean they’ll all react or adapt in the same way. You will need to take account of individual preferences and give people choice where this is possible. Make sure you’re patient and supportive to people during this transition period. Everyone adapted to lockdown at their own pace, recognise that they’ll come out of it at their own pace too.
Furthermore, be especially patient with those who have been off on furlough. People who have been working throughout lockdown could become resentful or frustrated with their colleagues who have had such a large amount of paid leave, but returning to work after months away can leave them feeling rusty, out of practice and out of the loop. Give them the time, space and understanding to find their feet again.
4. Learn from the bad while recognising the good
There were untold challenges during lockdown, but this doesn’t mean there weren’t positives as well. Before reopening your office or workplace, have an honest discussion about the pros and cons of the past few months. Were you agile enough to adapt to the sudden lockdown? Did your employees act with resilience? What went wrong? What went right? What benefits did you find from working virtually? How can you retain them?
Many organisations have been forced to adopt new and unexpected methods of working, cut their budgets and focus on different areas of the market, amongst countless other sudden transformations. Everything from business meetings to first dates to classrooms became virtual overnight, and now we need to carefully decide how much of that we want to keep.
This is the perfect opportunity to reassess all your company’s old habits before restarting them. For example, a recent report has shown that a majority of American workers want to keep the flexibility of working from home, at least a few days a week, after the pandemic ends. We may never see another time of such monumental change. Use it wisely.