Return-to-work plans: preparing for a return to the office

As the crest of the third wave looms in Canada, it is hard to believe the headlines touting relaxed restrictions and smooth sailing ahead. But as more Canadians are vaccinated, there is cautious optimism and discussion about what a safe return to the office might look like.

For companies that are currently operating remotely, there’s a lot to consider and plan for before returning to the office. These four tips can help guide a successful return-to-the-office strategy.

A year (and counting) at home: what’s working and what isn’t?

At the beginning of the pandemic it was largely assumed that remote work would be the way of the future and there would be no going back to the office. Interestingly, this forecast has been downgraded somewhat over the past few months, particularly as some of the pain points of remote work have emerged over the last year.

In a recent digital article for HBR aimed at helping CEOs plan for a return to the office , author Dan Ciampa notes that managers are finding aspects of managing remote teams especially challenging. “[Managers] must ensure collaboration across department lines, coach employees, deal with people and relationship problems, and read the subtle signs of everyday interactions for barriers to communication.”

Additional challenges for all-remote teams include onboarding new hires, particularly new grads and younger team members whose development and growth are largely bolstered by osmosis in a physical team environment. And let’s not forget the very real burden of Zoom fatigue! That alone has some teams wistfully dreaming of a return to caterer-grade coffee and stale doughnuts in the conference room.

What seemed like a foregone conclusion that the workforce was shifting toward remote work has been replaced with a sense that the yet-to-be-established new normal will likely be a hybrid model or phased-in return to the office over time.

Don’t rush to define your return-to-office plans too quickly

If the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that predictions and plans change and we need to be flexible and adaptive while making critical decisions that affect the health and safety of our teams, as well as the viability of our businesses.

As leaders evaluate policies, timelines, and strategies for bringing teams back to the office there are big issues to consider. According to Ciampa, “wise leaders will resist pressure to define a policy or make final decisions until it’s necessary to do so… With uncertainty about what lies ahead, it is important to avoid steps that will either create unrealistic expectations or limit options. For such big, consequential decisions, one key success factor is to buy time to gather more information and leave options open as long as possible.”

Even if you decide to institute a hybrid model that includes options for work-from-home and in-office, there will be important decisions about how to best manage that strategy. You’ll need to anticipate how you’ll deal with team members who prefer to work from home but are tasked with responsibilities that are best completed face-to-face, or how you will evaluate the long-term impact of a divided workforce on the company’s workplace culture.

Conduct a phased return to the office

For any return-to-office plan, safety and health are the main priorities. Policies will be based on current public health guidelines in place and will adapt as those guidelines change over time. In their Roadmap for Return , Perkins & Will suggest that “20% to 40% of your maximum capacity with personal distancing (six feet) per floor may be a good range to test new measures before increasing the office population.”

Plan for multiple futures — transition protocols will include re-exit plans in case caseloads spike again. Other options might include alternating occupancy with established in-office schedules for staff.

If possible, start with volunteers who have expressed interest in returning to the office. Recognize that employees will not all have the same comfort level about returning to an office environment. Some staff will need to evaluate options for public travel to/from work or make alternate arrangements for child or elder care.

Regularly seek feedback from employees to understand ongoing issues and concerns, and adjust strategy as needed.

Evaluate and address any infrastructure changes before staff return

Essential businesses had to respond quickly and implement changes to ensure team safety, such as supplying PPE, installing plexi-glass barriers, and adding sanitization stations throughout the workplace. Similar upgrades will be necessary for office spaces before teams move back in.

Other considerations may include establishing criteria for indoor air quality and HVAC systems, and upgrading to touchless and/or easy-to-clean surfaces for doors, fixtures, appliances, and equipment wherever possible.

Lastly, the CDC currently recommends that employees do not share desks, offices, or equipment if possible. Offices currently set up with hot desking will want to consider assigned seating for the foreseeable future.

As we continue to chart our course in the rough seas of this pandemic, we must set our sights on the hope that’s on the horizon. A measured, strategic approach will ensure that our eventual return to the office is safe and successful.

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