Leading the Return to Office

Leading the Return to Office


Many companies have called upon their employees to return to the office. Please have a look at my article on the considerations that HR professionals and Corporations Leaders need to take into account as they transition their employees back to the office.

“Welcome back to the office now that we are all vaccinated and the pandemic is behind us! Phew! Settle into your offices and let us all meet at 12p.m. in the Conference Room”. Very soon around the world, HR and other corporate leaders will be saying this to their staff who will be listening attentively but apprehensively as they get ready to resume their roles in a new post-COVID-19 world. They will listen and keenly observe what their leaders will be doing in weeks and months that follow.

ILO’s “Safe Return to Work” guideline for Employers


ILO has published a ‘Safe Return to Work’ guideline for Employers. In this guide, ILO strongly acknowledges the importance of preparing for employees’ return to the office; and the emphasis is on ‘safe return.’ The ILO guide also provides ideas on how to protect workers’ mental well-being as they return to the office.

Some of the guidelines ILO has provided include but are not limited to; determining which workers should return to work first, based on business needs and in compliance with ongoing restrictions on business operations and health precautions such as physical distancing. Workers who can continue to telework are advised to do so. Flexible working time such as staggered hours or shift work should be considered to limit congestion in the workplace.

Secondly, preparing the workplace for the return of workers ought to consider the workplace’ layout and implement changes that allow for distancing, systematic cleaning and disinfection of workspaces and tools and budgeting for stocking up on cleaning supplies and any protective equipment that may be needed. Maintaining an open dialogue with workers on workplace health and safety measures is important. Remember to involve union representatives where applicable. Employees do have a contribution to make on matters of risk and solutions to their wellbeing.

HR Policies related to managing COVID-19


HR Policies should have changed by now given the impact of the pandemic on managing workers. It is imperative that employees are provided with information about company policies, processes and practices related to managing COVID-19. Train your staff regularly and remind them of the need to take caution and observe health protocols.

In all of the aforementioned, the lead coordinator will be the Human Resource Leader who will be relied upon to help put employees at ease as they transition into in-office.

Organizations of this generation have been forever changed by the pandemic and therefore, should have reflective policies in place. For example, if you are leaving your home for the office and are experiencing fever and a cough you may have to stay back home and there will be a policy to guide that. The mode of commuting into the office might also be a concern especially on public transportation. Some things that will be more critical than ever in the workplace include: Office ventilation; cleaning and disinfecting the workplace regularly; wearing of protective equipment for staff dedicated to keeping the office clean and safe; wearing of masks in the workplace including thoughts on the type of masks that will be allowed in the premises. These considerations will require human resource policies put in place to guide them including sanctions for non-compliance.

Possible return-to-work plans


The workplace is going to be new and different from what we knew it as.Clear communication on transition should be in place and a return for all employees at a go may not be ideal for all. Some of the return to work options include:
  • Old culture: All staff to return to in-office and work 8-5pm.Monday – Friday while adhering to COVID safety protocols and social distancing measures.
  • Gradual: A small number of employees return to in-office work at a time, depending on employees’ preferences. This will go on until all employees have returned to the office during working hours while always ensuring COVID safety protocols and social distancing measures are put in place and adhered to.
  • Hybrid Option a: Stagger the weeks or days where certain employees work from home indefinitely only coming in for a few days in a week.
  • Hybrid Option b: Transitioning certain employees or positions to work remotely on a permanent basis, while returning other employees to in-office work.
  • Remote: Transitioning the entire workforce to working remotely on a permanent basis.

Strategies to put employees at ease

1. Allow room for reconnection


There is power in reconnection and after such a gruesome isolating experience like the COVID-19, employees will have a desire to reconnect with colleagues. There will be more teas and more brown bag lunches together to share their experiences during quarantine and to unpack.

During this phase, managers will have to lower expectations on work productivity. Give staff time they need to become comfortable. Don’t be bothered if they spend more time chatting, laughing as they catch up because they are making up for the months lost during isolation. Reconnecting with colleagues is part of their healing process.

Some of your staff will be carrying scars and pains from the pandemic including: Loss of loved ones feelings of isolation from quarantine, a disruption to normal routines all which may have left them feeling distressed and traumatized. Now's the time to be keen on mental wellness. A CDC US survey indicated that of 41% of people surveyed, at least one of them was found to have adverse mental conditions including anxiety. Therefore, creating a psychological safety net is one way to help allay concerns.

This is the time for empathy, time to show that you care. It is the time for leaders to be open and vulnerable and candid. Openness and candidness will bring your employees closer and will leave them feeling more engaged with you when you share openly your own struggles. Appreciate your employees for their courage to be candid. Be humble enough to show your employees that you do not have answers to all questions. Be confident to say you are not sure. Remember that It is okay to not know it all.

2. Show an optimistic future


In times of crisis such as this it is important that leaders show an inspiring vision of the future. Identify positive elements of work in the future to inspire. Find real and genuine positive messages to share with your team.

3. Exude positivity


Remember to exude positivity. Acting fearful or worried will put both you and your staff on edge. Positive emotions are contagious and so be cheerful and positive and your employees will follow suit. When your employees return to the office they will be watching you closely for cues. They will be watching your speech, your body language, your emotions, your eyes, your posture. So it is important that you are mindful of how you carry yourself. Continue to hold one-on-one meetings for as long as it may take to get your employees to share their concerns as they settle in.

During these meetings find out how your employees feel about coming back to the office, what their working from home experiences were like. Find out if they miss working from home and the details of those habits, find out what worries they have about the future.

4. Connect with the undecided


Some of your staff will want to continue working from home. It may not be all 40hrs a week but some of the days. HR leaders and managers should find a way to work with this group of undecided by finding a balance between WFH and in-office work. Some of your employees started side hustles during the pandemic which they now give some of their time to. It may be wise to have candid discussions to allow them to continue to run their ventures within the HR Policy Guideline which should be formulated to encompass such scenarios. You may want to consider allowing your staff to supply some of your office needs.

I call on us HR and corporation leaders to rise, collaborate and prepare for return to the office.

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