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Thoughts from an HR leader on the ‘new normal’ workday

While reentry to the workplace can be a difficult process, it doesn’t have to be an impossible one.
By: | May 11, 2020 • 5 min read

As COVID-19 continues to impact nearly every country, focus has increasingly turned to the virus’ impact on daily routines. This includes how businesses are adjusting to increasing orders to work from home or to close completely unless they are considered “essential.” Additionally, as countries and states begin to lift restrictions and consider reopening, businesses, large and small, need to prepare their reentry strategies and be agile. This leaves many scrambling to set up efficient, resilient and effective workspaces that keep employees and leadership alike in contact and the lines of communication open. This is a difficult process, but it doesn’t have to be an impossible one. Let’s take a look at what organizations and their workers can do to stay connected and productive in this unprecedented time.

How can organizations adjust?

Dr. Tyrone D. Smith Jr.

If you’re looking at the current business landscape and wondering what you can do to adjust, whether you’ve been required to shut down, are doing so voluntarily or are simply hoping to keep your employees as healthy as possible, you’re not alone. Thousands of business owners and corporations are also weighing their options or searching for a good place to start the change. One of the most important and effective things you can do right now is to fully and continually embrace remote working solutions, even if your state is slowly transitioning back to face-to-face contact. Organizations can also consider a hybrid model, where a portion of the workforce will permanently work from home.

In most industries and positions, there is relatively little that can’t be done remotely. This includes routine team and client meetings and conference calls. And even if you’re not able or willing to move to virtual options entirely, you can greatly reduce the risk of contracting the virus in your workplace by keeping those who have been exposed or are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 home safely and by having a game plan for anyone who comes in.

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Related: Strategies to manage coronavirus in the workplace

If you haven’t already, create an action plan and email it to all of your employees. This includes information on when to stay home, how employees can work from home and links to resources that provide more in-depth explanations of any software they need to download in order to stay connected. Stay agile and continue to revise your action plan and evaluate your digital transformation strategies to be resilient to changes and challenges as they arise. You’ll also want to talk about office policy for anyone who continues coming into the workplace, such as those who are deemed essential employees. Some organizations may want to develop remote and hybrid model policies. Explain how employees can maintain social distancing and do their best to help flatten the curve while in the physical workplace.

Instead of laying off and furloughing employees, organizations can explore ways to optimize the workforce for exceptional and key talent, if possible, by finding new roles and redeploying existing resources. This can also help boost team morale and make members feel more secure.

Make the switch to remote working easy by looking into virtual office software suites that can help keep your employees connected to each other as well as any key information or databases they need in order to work effectively.

To keep employees engaged, companies should continue to develop team-building programs, within the virtual space. This includes online lunch bonding sessions, group fitness activities, coffee breaks, virtual happy hours and online wellbeing challenges. Employers can also offer wellbeing, mental health and care resources that employees can take advantage of. Employers should also strive to recognize their team members’ hard work as they hit professional milestones and continue to provide exceptional work through the stress of COVID-19.

While creating re-entry plans, employers should be cognizant of employees with high-risk conditions such as diabetes, asthma and heart disease. Concern for older or immunocompromised family members should also be considered. If team members are working more productively and efficiently from home, maybe it’s time to make telecommuting a consideration in how the future of work is done. A study conducted by a Stanford University economics professor found that remote workers were 13.5 percent more productive than on-site employees, on average. These employees were also found to have higher job satisfaction and experienced less interruptions. Remote employees were also found to be healthier and happier, which can have a positive impact on the organization’s culture and business results. Eighty-two percent of respondents experienced lower stress levels. Gallup researchers also found that employees allowed to work remotely 60 to 80 percent of the time were more engaged than on-site employees. This can also help employees save on travel and transportation costs. This may lead employers to downsize their office spaces or shift into the digital work environment. Changes will likely be seen even with the shared offices at co-working spaces, as organizations change how offices are utilized. The commercial real estate market may also see changes once health fears settle down and a new normal begins. Following required closings of non-essential businesses throughout the country, a Gartner study found that CFOs decreased commercial real estate expenses by 13 percent, with plans for an additional 9 percent reduction in the coming months. Organizations are also able to save $10,000 per year per remote employee, on average, according to PGi. Through remote working solutions and flexible office spaces, Aetna saves $78 million per year and shed 2.7 million square feet of its commercial real estate.

Most importantly, having an agile outlook will help you stay on top of updates and new developments as they come in. Be proactive instead of reactive. Keep an eye on local and state regulations. As issues arise, work quickly to solve them to get ahead of delays that may occur because of reduced face-to-face interactions. Additionally, periodically pulse your workforce to help you implement new solutions or improve processes that may not be obvious to leadership. Be open to this feedback and keep all lines of communication open.

How can employees adjust?

It might seem as though employees have the easier task, but working from home can be exhausting. This is especially true if you have children. Creating a schedule that allows you to parent and work can be tricky and might require a bit of trial and error. If there is no one else who can help share the responsibility and your children are relatively young, try working for part of the hour and interacting with them during the rest. There is a wealth of interactive and engaging educational activities online for children of all ages that can help make this task a bit easier. If you can separate your workspace from the rest of the home, even a bit, it could make your work time a lot more productive.

If you don’t have children, you might be in a slightly less complicated, but no easier, situation. Working from home presents many challenges, including a reduced ability to focus and engage. To help combat this, set up an area of your home that is designated for work. This can be as simple as sitting at the spare table in the dining room or, if you’re lucky, setting up a home office in a dedicated room. Having a separate space for work will make the process of engaging remotely a bit easier.

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Be transparent and proactive if problems arise, including issues with any software or devices you’ve been asked to use for work. Don’t wait until the last minute to ask for help, and try to keep your schedule as close to “normal” as possible.

How to stay connected while working remote

Remote working doesn’t mean you have to be disconnected from the rest of the team. Email is a wonderful invention, of course, but video chat, instant messaging and virtual collaborative spaces are equally valuable. Both employers and employees need to work together to ensure the lines of communication remain open. Stay attentive to email or messaging and establish “best practices” in order to easily collaborate with co-workers. Make use of video conferencing for team meetings and applications (e.g. Zoom, Slack, WebEx, Skype and Microsoft Teams, etc.) to make instant chat and video calls quick and easy.

Keep in mind that this is a new experience for many and be forgiving as you all adjust to this new kind of workday.

Dr. Tyrone Smith Jr. is a People Operations and Workforce Analytics Leader at Ryan, LLC, where he focuses on building high-performing teams and collaborating with business leaders. He is also responsible for identifying, analyzing and solving complex business problems that prepare for the future of work.

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