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Returning to the workplace: opportunities, pitfalls for employers

Tara Wolckenhauer
Tara Wolckenhauer is DVP of human resources at ADP.

Navigating the current global health event is one of the biggest business challenges of our time. Today’s employers bear the primary responsibility of figuring out how to adapt traditional ways of working to be good both for business and for people, helping define new approaches along the way. As government restrictions begin to ease, the most pressing of these is determining when and how–if at all–to start the complex task of returning to the workplace.

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If you’re in this position, here are some key considerations and preparations to make.

Tackling the Big Questions: Safety, Productivity and Culture

The first area to consider is the nature of the work itself and whether that work is best done at home or at the office. Ask yourself, where do you get the most efficiency and scale? Having all or most of your workforce remote would have once been unthinkable for many employers, but now that systems and protocols are up and running, you may discover it’s actually favorable for employees to continue on remotely.

As you think through the decision, it’s a good idea to anonymously survey your employees to find out if they prefer to work from home, return to the office, or some combination of the two. This will allow you to understand the sentiment and conditions, such as concerns about transportation or shared spaces, that will help make people feel safe. You can then take action on those learnings as you’re mapping out how to modify workplace policies and the physical space of your office, including, for example, eliminating common areas like cafeterias, putting limits on the number of people in conference rooms, mandating masks, and even implementing restroom protocols.

Related: Why empathy is key as employees return to workplaces

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Many people have been deeply affected by the global health event in a variety of ways, and even those who have not been directly so will likely experience some anxiety about the possibility of being in close quarters with other people, during their commute or at the office. Ultimately, keeping associates safe is paramount and should be at the heart of all decision-making.

You’ll also want to evaluate your company culture, and what that looks like now. Certain businesses and employees thrive in a work-from-home environment, just as there are those who do not. More than ever, companies will need to be flexible because what may work for one employee may not work for another. If you’re thinking about having all or some of your employees work remotely long-term, be sure to set up channels where they can still come together, virtually or in person. And remember that engaging your employees is the key to success. If your employees are happy, chances are your customers and clients will be happy, too.

Related: Employee engagement is hard right now; How to overcome that 

Going Beyond Communication to Explanation is Crucial

Once you come to a decision about how your company will move forward–whether all employees will return to the office or continue to work from home or a hybrid of the two–be prepared to communicate that decision in a thoughtful and transparent way to eliminate misunderstandings and achieve buy-in from everyone. That means being able to explain the why to employees. For example, if you’re going to have a hybrid workplace, explain why certain roles or teams will work better in the office versus virtually. If you’re committing to an all-virtual workforce partly to reduce your real estate footprint, come out and say so. Make sure your explanations reinforce your company’s mission and values, and don’t omit anything important–in the absence of information, people tend to build different narratives.

Companies have the right to decide where a job is based and recall folks into offices, but failing to communicate effectively could be detrimental to an organization. Remember, a little compassion goes a long way–you’ll want to acknowledge that your employees are dealing with issues around health, childcare and other realities and be ready for departures. It’s well worth familiarizing yourself with the most recent laws around these issues.

Related: The 3 C’s for successful return-to-work communication

When building a communications plan, consider that the timing of your message matters as well. As your company moves through the decision-making process, keep your employees updated. For example, when you’re distributing the survey, you’ll want to let workers know that you’re trying to come to a decision about whether the physical office will reopen and how. If you are considering reopening sometime in the fall but don’t know exactly when, let folks know that soon (e.g, at your next company-wide virtual meeting). You don’t need a definitive answer or an exact date–you simply need to be transparent and communicate along the way, so that returning to the office isn’t a total surprise, and people have some advance notice to make their own personal preparations and decisions about childcare, where to live and other matters. Being flexible will go a long way in retaining top talent.

Thinking Outside the Conference Room

As you take these steps and figure out what the new way of working looks like for you, make creativity your ally. For the time being, employees are going to be wary of common spaces in the office. You will have to set protocols, including limitations on the number of people in the conference room or the elevator. That said, it doesn’t mean everything shared must be eliminated completely. If your office has a game room, you may be able to continue to play ping pong with certain safety protocols in place. You may find that the answer is often not a hard †œno,† but a question of finding a way.

If you’re a global or multinational company with associates in other markets, keep in mind that the culture and laws there are different from those in the United States. A good approach is for the company at large to set guidelines and then empower local offices with autonomy since they know the local customs and rules better–in other words, freedom within the framework.

One thing is certain: What comes next will involve a period of adjustment for everyone, and flexibility, creativity and transparency will make all the difference.