What To Consider Before Setting Reopening Dates
As we approach the end of the pandemic, many corporate leaders are putting dates to their reopening plans.
Many are eager to have people back in the office they have been paying big bucks for this past year or are merely looking forward to seeing people’s faces again. Most have experienced some form of stress or burnout related to working from home.
Whatever the reason, we want to warn against re-establishing in-office work as the default or rushing people back prematurely. Not only have we seen the success of remote work, but most have discovered and relished the many benefits that come with working from home. In addition, prioritizing office presence over other needs can create unsafe or unhappy environments.
Without a doubt, there will be a continued need for offices. Some work is simply better done on-site and in-person, while for those who can work from home, work-life balance has become harder to achieve. However, this need must be determined carefully, and any action taken with caution, both for reasons of safety and employee satisfaction.
People will be disinclined to give up the freedom that they have experienced, meaning that companies will have to make flexibility a greater part of their work policies. Ones that fail to do so will see a decline of fresh talent and even possibly their own workforce.
Now that we’ve established that flexibility is necessary, what that looks like in practice will depend on the nature and needs of your organization, such as the company size and type, the planning and communication around reopening, support and training you’re giving managers, how teams are structured, and how you develop employees.
This article will outline the considerations necessary to make the determination whether working in-office is necessary (and yes, we mean necessary – not preferred or possible), what questions you need to ask during your decision-making process, and how to plan your work policies appropriately.
There are a few factors that are driving many executives to accelerate the return to the office; however, most of these worries are undue and can, in fact, end up damaging corporate image, culture, and competitiveness.
Some executives are eager to get their employees back in the office (and have them stay there) because they fear that otherwise, they will lose the control they see as necessary to ensure the productivity of their team.
However, with clear structure and clarity of work policies, you can still have flexibility and not lose out. In addition, giving employees freedom in their scheduling shows trust, an essential component of building strong and effective relationships.
Setting standards and clearly communicating them will allow everyone to understand what is – and is not – flexible. Having clear processes and channels will allow for organized and equitable flexibility, retaining a sense of control while giving employees the freedom they need to thrive.
For tips on how to communicate your return to office plan:
While frequent and casual contact may certainly help improve corporate culture, the unique position we are in provides the opportunity to revaluate what that culture really is for your organization and be more intentional in building it.
Many organizations have reported that they found creative ways to maintain culture during months of remote working during the pandemic, and these can be carried forward into the future.
It is true that in-person meetings make communication easier; however, as long as teams that are working on a flexible schedule commit to regular meetings and consistent communication, then collaboration will not be compromised.
In fact, collaboration can be enhanced in remote- or hybrid- models as a wider group of people can have access to the meeting.
For more information on hybrid meeting options:
Performance measurement has had to change because of remote working, which has benefitted employees and employers alike as evaluations are no longer determined or swayed by the mere presence in the office.
All employees should be evaluated on the quality of their work and their ability to meet clearly defined performance objectives, rather than on time spent in the office.
Questions to ask
Now that we’ve (hopefully) quelled the anxieties around getting people back to the office ASAP, we can approach the assessment of whether in-office work is the right move objectively.
We’ve outlined questions that will help you determine if (and which) employees need to come back to the office and whether it is in your best interests to do so.
What is the role?
It’s easy to forget that remote work is not just computer work. Many professions are inherently ‘remote’ and have continued as normal throughout the pandemic.
Likewise, some roles that are not strictly office-based still rely upon in-person interactions.
It is important then to consider the day-to-day activities of various roles in your corporation to decide whether working on-site is necessary. For those unable to work remotely, their safety can be ensured by limiting the occupancy of the office through implementing hybrid work models for those that can work remotely.
Throughout this process, ensuring legal compliance and communicating potentially unpopular policies are tedious but mandatory tasks.
What were your policies pre-pandemic? During the pandemic?
Blanket policies work in a pinch, but employees will expect better for the return to office. Equitable policies are paramount, but they should be used productively rather than in an attempt to get people back to the office.
If you let people move away from your office headquarters during the pandemic, you cannot expect them to move back. In addition, don’t penalize them by basing promotions on on-site availability. Performance should be used as the primary metric for measuring success, just as it was during the pandemic.
To learn more about ensuring equity in hybrid models, read our article on the subject:
How has it been affected by remote work?
Looking critically at performance pre-pandemic vs. during the pandemic will indicate what transitions worked well, as well as what roles are effectively done remotely. Shape your in-office work requirements based on these findings, and continue to monitor performance and adapt accordingly.
What would be gained from in-office presence?
Here is where a lot of biases can come into play – many of the advantages that executives assume are limited to the on-site experience are actually not representative of reality, as people have been just as (or even more) productive at home than at the office. Use this time to check your biases.
Is your office space ready?
If you’ve done make-shift changes for safety reasons, the office may be a bit off-putting. If people return to caution tape across off-limits seats or workstations erroneously set up for distancing, it won’t create a welcoming vibe.
Think about making more long-lasting safety changes—shifting layouts, adding beautiful boundary elements and changing circulation patterns. Of course, add needed safety features, but also create a place that feels comfortable, navigable and hospitable.
How do your employees feel about it?
People are learning to work constructively from home and are reluctant to return to the office full time for reasons ranging from commuting hassles to workday flexibility. At the same time, many employees are miserable, longing for connection with coworkers and feeling acutely cut off.
Taking an assessment of the sentiments of your team will give you a better idea of what they want, fear, and anticipate. Much insight can be gleaned from such a practice and can help you make decisions and catch issues that you might have otherwise missed.
What benefits does your office provide?
We’ve always known the office must be a magnet and a destination. And now it must compete with the home office to a greater extent as well. The benefits to both your employees and your corporation are now relative, and there are several aspects that should be considered before requiring employees to come back:
- Does your office exude creative energy? If not, people will not want to be there, not to mention opt for on-site work when their home-office setups are way nicer. The empty work café or the deserted workstations may only sap energy.
- Does your office space support the kind of work people need it for? If people are able to do more of their individual work at home, employees may be more likely to come in for collaboration, connection and co-creation.
- Does your office support employee wellbeing? In a new study, Gallup demonstrates wellbeing and engagement are reciprocal—influencing each other—and the deterioration of wellbeing is correlated with more work from home and social isolation. The implication: An office that fosters wellbeing will also be good for mental health and engagement.
- Does your office support employee development, mentoring, and professional growth? Chief among the reasons people say they want to come back to the office is so they can regain a sense of belonging, improve their network and nurture relationships. Younger generations and new hires, especially, are craving this because of the distance over the previous year.
For more on how to attract employees back to the office:
- How Companies Are Trying to Attract Employees Back to the Office
- 5 Ways to Get Employees Excited to Return to the Office
Once you’ve used these questions to form your pros and cons, you will have a better idea as to the necessity of in-office work.
Likely, you will have reached the conclusion that a hybrid model will work best for your team. Below we outline how to prepare for your reopening considering the factors above, as well as how to continue to support remote workers.
Prepare for Reopening.
Whatever you decide in the end, you’ll need to communicate how you came to this decision, why it’s necessary and how each person will be affected.
For tips on how to communicate your reopening plan effectively:
You’ll need to compensate for the lack of buzz provided by many people in the office. Color, light, art and places where people can connect with colleagues are smart ideas. Research from Steelcase found when people experience space as stimulating or inspiring, they tend to have a greater sense of community which contributes to greater engagement, productivity, innovation and retention.
Make your space reflect the changing role of the office. Give people plenty of choice and variety in the space—so they can do their work in the place that serves them best. Keep the space fresh and updated so it doesn’t become stagnant.
It’s not only physical health that had become important over this last year; overall wellbeing has become a primary concern for employees and employers. People will need space that supports their wellbeing, and you may need to consider adding settings where people can rejuvenate, reset and reinvigorate during the day. There are plenty of options, and you may need to increase their availability to ensure the appropriate focus on wellbeing as people slowly return.
Supporting Remote Work
It is evident by now that the problems of remote work during the pandemic won’t be solved by reentering office buildings. The pandemic exacerbated burnout, overwork and loneliness, but they are part of the human condition. We need better workplaces, not just ones in better settings.
People feel a need to belong and have an inherent desire for deep, lasting, and meaningful connections. This is true both outside and inside of work. Not feeling connected can be downright soul-wrenching and result in the adverse physiological consequences that accompany prolonged anxiety and depression. Employees who feel disconnected are more likely to withdraw from colleagues, go on medical leave, or exit the organization altogether. On the flip side, feeling connected through meaningful relationships with colleagues is a demonstrated driver of employee engagement and performance. This is particularly a challenge with remote work, so ensuring you make an extra effort to implement systems and practices that encourage involvement is necessary.
And don’t forget the culture – many companies have gone a year now without traditional office culture, and newer employees have no knowledge of what once was.
The purpose of this article is to warn against being too quick to make decisions, making choices without considering all aspects of the issue, and taking action without being adequately prepared. We urge you to think about the return to office in a way that uses necessity as a baseline rather than the preferences or assumptions.
While there are many factors to consider in deciding the best way forward, being sensitive to the needs of your employees should be paramount. It is better to err on the side of flexibility rather than rigidity, especially in an ambiguous and unprecedented time such as this. All communication should be done with empathy and understanding.
Ultimately, you must decide what works for your firm based on role and geography, with a focus on flexibility.