Workers returning to the office en masse has been a hot topic for many months now. As a result, businesses of all sizes had plenty of time to determine how and when their workspaces would return to full capacity. However, the emergence of the delta variant threw many of these plans into disarray. While this has proven challenging, especially for businesses that work better in a communal environment, it’s also an opportunity.
Management and employees alike now have more time to ensure that what they ultimately do works out for everyone involved. With time comes more flexibility. There’s no longer any need to rush the return, and employees can have more of a say in what their return entails.
Even if your return to the office plan is already underway, and the delta variant hasn’t proven as much of a distraction for you as it has to others, the below tips warrant consideration. Office life has changed in the wake of the pandemic, and employees are increasingly aware of their work-life balance. While not all suggestions focus on that exclusively, many are designed with employees in mind as you seek to make their time at work as enjoyable and therefore productive as possible.
1. Don’t Consider It a Return to ‘Normal’
The last thing any business should do when preparing for a return to work is to assume that employees will immediately slot back into working patterns and roles precisely as they did before the shutdown. On the contrary, many employees have spent considerable time and effort adapting to remote work and have picked up new habits and techniques to smooth the transition. These skills can prove valuable, and management shouldn’t encourage workers to unlearn them upon their return.
Modern office culture was dated, not least because it hadn’t changed all that much in decades. Young, modern companies made the news merely by having dedicated rest areas and entertainment facilities, simply because they represented such a break from the norm.
Consider the break afforded by the pandemic as the end of old habits and the opportunity to implement new ones. Of course, you don’t have to provide all the home comforts in the office. Indeed, you might not even have space too if you still plan to implement social distancing. However, even with limited space, a degree of creativity can provide the reset needed for a new, better way of working.
2. Consider Who Should Return and When
Following on from the space consideration, it might not yet be time to return to full capacity. However, just because everyone is scheduled to return to the office, that doesn’t mean that they all need to do so simultaneously.
Every company is different, but you probably have a fair idea of who would benefit most from a return to the office and who you’re more comfortable with continuing to spend more time working remotely. If there’s no clear distinction in roles, you may want to simply ask your employees. Some will have spent their entire time away craving a return to the office, while others will be happier than ever with their home-based routine. Then, find a solution that works, and don’t be afraid to take advice from the people most affected by your decisions.
3. Have Policies in Place for High-Risk Employees
Some employees are at higher risk than others, as has been the case since the pandemic began. If existing health conditions, or those of people they live with, preclude them from returning to work straight away, provide encouragement and support.
Ultimately, you as the employer have the right to expect employees to return to the workplace. However, forcing someone to do so when they have a good reason not to can be bad for morale, not only for the individual involved but also for those with whom they work.
4. Encourage a Hybrid Home/Work Approach
Even when back in the office, you don’t need to discourage employees from continuing with some of the habits they’ve become accustomed to over the months. Routines are often beneficial, but they’re also tricky to change. So, if someone has used their time away to find something that works for them but doesn’t necessarily align with traditional office culture, hear them out.
For example, your previous way of working may have involved set start and end times, along with specified break times. There may be operational reasons for sticking as closely with them as possible but be as flexible as you can where there’s room for it. If starting and finishing earlier fits someone’s lifestyle better, try to accommodate it. If they want to play a quick online game using office hardware to keep their mind ticking over while they take a break, make it happen.
In short, employees have had plenty of time to determine what works for them over the past few months, and if it leads to better productivity, arbitrary rules shouldn’t be the difference-maker.
5. Plan for Enhanced Routine Cleaning
Depending on whom you ask, there may not be an end in sight for the pandemic. There’s no better time to implement a more robust cleaning policy, ensuring that surfaces and communal spaces are as free of the virus as possible.
Any company that encourages workers to return to these communal spaces has the moral obligation to ensure the wellbeing of those employees, and part of that means making the office potentially cleaner than ever before.
6. Don’t Lose the Skills Learned During Time Away
Remote working requires considerable additional skills compared to being in the office. Thus, while some employees may have struggled with the change initially, the chances are that the majority are substantially more tech-literate upon their return than they were when the pandemic started.
They’ve had several months to hone their skills, and most managers and business owners would agree that more skills are better than fewer.
Even if the ability to handle video calls, time management, and other upskills doesn’t impact your business immediately, they have value and shouldn’t be forgotten. For example, your business may decide that it can save significant sums each year by switching from in-person meetings and travel to almost exclusively meeting on Zoom. In addition, employees may be more productive than ever because they’re equipped and trusted to manage their own workloads.
Even if there are no immediate applications for these newfound skills, try to make them a part of typical office culture so that they’re there when you need them.
7. Know What to Do in the Case of a Diagnosis
Nothing can grind a return-to-work plan to a halt like a fresh diagnosis. There are still rules in place globally for what to do, having come in close contact with a positive case. Even when not strictly enforced, there remains guidance on the matter. Businesses should take time now to decide on a policy covering what to do, should this happen to them in the future.
Ideally, such policies should not derail return to work plans entirely, although this will occasionally prove unavoidable. Regardless of the implications, understand what to do and when so that employees can continue working to the best of their abilities, regardless of circumstances.
8. Take Time to Understand Individual Concerns
We touched on the idea of inviting feedback from employees when formulating plans, but it doesn’t have to be optional. Your teams have had months to adjust their work patterns. Many won’t have ever stopped and thought of what works for them, especially with the freedom to implement new ideas.
Once again, flexibility is critical, and a heavy-handed approach isn’t always the best solution.
This works both ways, too. Remote employees have had the opportunity to demonstrate that they can be trusted and relied upon to remain productive even without direct supervision. That doesn’t need to change just because they are back in the office. Instead, empower them to approach tasks in the way they see fit rather than sticking to the tried and tested. After all, doing the same thing over and over usually leads to the same results, and your business might not yet be reaching its full potential.
9. Schedule a Daily Update Strategy
It’s imperative to plan ahead when there’s an opportunity to do so. However, the best plans don’t serve as scripts. They’re adaptable, and schedules can change based on new information. If you’ve not yet taken the opportunity to speak with employees about their concerns and expectations, you have no way to plan with certainty for what lies ahead.
Much as with anything else in business, some ideas will work right away while others won’t. Some will demonstrate potential but could use a couple of tweaks before becoming an integral part of operations.
Crucially, things can change in a short period, and it’s best to be ready for anything. Of course, you won’t require daily COVID protocols forever, but it’s excellent to understand what’s working and what isn’t as quickly as possible in the early stages.
10. Provide Dedicated Support for Wellbeing and Mental Health
A change of scenery is often significant for mental health, but that won’t always apply to returning to the workplace. Some employees will have adapted to working from home like it was what they were destined to do all along. Others will still show signs of struggle with the concept.
The idea that you can’t please all the people all the time applies even to relatively small groups, such as teams in an office. As a result, some might still harbour ambitions of never returning to the office. Others are happy to be back but don’t want to lose the freedom that remote work affords.
Mental wellbeing and productivity go hand in hand, so it makes sense for employers to take the time to ensure their team is confident and comfortable in the new setting.
The critical difference between the beginning of widespread remote working and the upcoming return is that there’s time to plan, and nothing is enforced. It’s also not a step into the unknown, which working from home inevitably was for some employees.
Any successful manager or entrepreneur understands the value of planning, and it’s fantastic to have the time and opportunity to decide how you expect things to play out. But ultimately, it’s the employees that will bear the brunt of the new way of working. Any employer that wants to continue to get the best out of them will benefit from being as flexible and adaptable as possible while taking responsibility for office-wide factors like hygiene and distancing requirements.
Amy is a business coach and speaker who creates solutions for businesses seeking to change attitudes and routines to boost productivity throughout the workplace.