We all witnessed our world take a dramatic shift into the “new normal,” (wearing masks, sanitizing constantly, staying six feet apart, etc.). Almost every business globally was affected. As we work tirelessly to try to contain the COVID-19 virus, we face many challenging situations ahead. For most Americans, one of these challenges includes returning to the workplace.
Whether you’re a business owner, part of your organization’s management team, or an employee, the transition back into the office may seem daunting, uncomfortable, and overwhelming. If you haven’t already reopened your business, it will be important for you to create a return to work strategy to help your employees feel supported and comfortable when it comes time to return to your office.
At GigSmart, we’ve reopened our HQ to some, but not all, of our departments. As such, we wanted to share some helpful tips and best practices as a result of our real experience transitioning back to our workplace.
Create a plan
First, every employer should have a plan in place before inviting employees back into the office. The health and safety of the staff should be leadership’s highest priority. There are guidelines in place in every city, including important rules and regulations you must follow in order to remain compliant. Make sure you have all the necessary sanitation supplies (many are out of stock or back ordered), and provide your employees with as much safety equipment (masks, gloves, touch-less thermometer etc.) as you can. Adjust the physical setup of your space to maximize work stations for social distancing, like rearranging desks to give individuals more space. Decide how you will choose who goes back in first, whether it be in phases, by team, by a volunteer-basis, or on a rotating schedule, and be very transparent in your reasoning.
Once the office is safely set up to meet your cities’ health guidelines, it’s time to decide who to invite back to the office and when. It’s important to remind yourself to be open to feedback and flexible to each individual’s situation. Some employees may be living with others who are at higher-risk which may make them more nervous about a return to office. Other employees may have the opposite circumstances — a less than ideal work from home situation may leave them ready and willing to get back into the workplace ASAP. Gauge how your team is feeling by surveying them. Once you have a better idea of where everyone stands, you’ll know more about what types of policies, guidelines, and requirements you should enforce as it relates to re-opening your workplace. Where possible, give people options so they can choose what works best for them. The more flexibility you’re able to give your workers as they transition back, the more comfortable they will feel.
While in the midst of a pandemic, I think the one thing I’ve learned is there’s no such thing as over-communicating. Be clear on what’s expected and how things are supposed to work. Do you want everyone to wear masks at all times? What about when they leave their work station? Do you require all employees to record their temperature? How many people are allowed in a conference room or shared space at one time? Communication is always key, but in unprecedented times it is crucial. Don’t be afraid to over-communicate or repeat the same message. The more information you give staff the better. Give your reasons for implementing certain processes and procedures. Remind them their safety is paramount. Doing so will help employees feel like they’re in the loop, making them more comfortable. Generally, most team members are open and understanding of changes necessary in the workplace when they are communicated clearly in advance.
Don’t forget the small stuff
As you communicate your plan about going back into the workplace, remember to include everything, even the minor details. As a result of COVID-19, adjustments to day-to-day office life will need to be made. Unfortunately, normal routines, like grabbing a morning coffee while chatting with a coworker, are no longer allowed. In order to create a smooth transition back into the workplace, it’s important to include details about many things that might be overlooked at first, like what shared utensils will be allowed, what amenities will or won’t be available, and what employees should now provide from home, etc. It’s important to include these details because as people transition from their homes (where they have access to all these things), back into the office where they may not, they’ll have an upfront understanding of what they should be bringing so they are prepared.
Be human and have humility
The most important thing is to remember we’re all human and learning as we go. Be sure to communicate that message throughout the process. Be open to people’s reasons behind their feelings. Demonstrate empathy and encourage employees to reach out if they are struggling. While everyone experienced the pandemic, it’s important to consider each individual perspective because they are all different. There are many situations and scenarios people find themselves in that can impact their ability to leave their home during this time. Show patience toward everyone and if you don’t understand, be kind. Provide your employees with ample opportunities to voice their concerns and share their feedback. You can set up a form whereby employees can express their concerns anonymously, or provide them with multiple channels (HR, their direct manager, the leadership team) so they have options when it comes to who and how they discuss their return to your workplace.
The truth is no one really knows the exact formula to conduct this transition. All we can do is our best, learn from our mistakes, and have patience. To learn more about guidelines for returning to the office, visit the CDC website, including this specific resource: Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers Responding to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), May 2020. Be sure to check with your city for specific information and guidelines for returning to the office in your area. We hope the tips outlined above are helpful in your journey to reopen your office. Stay safe.