Remote work forever? Implementing a hybrid system? Going back to the office full-time? Companies and their management teams have a lot to think about. have a lot of One of the success stories of the pandemic has been the adoption of remote work. A January 2021 survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) found that 83% of employers say remote work has been successful for their company. That’s a 10% increase from a June 2020 survey. It’s a case of good news/bad news. While some companies survived because of the strength of their remote-work initiatives, getting employees to head back to the office has its own challenges. In fact, another January survey, by LiveCareer, found that one-third of workers would quit before going back to the office full-time. “We now know that remote work is good for many things, but not everything,” says global HR analyst Josh Bersin, founder of Bersin by Deloitte. At the same time, companies are going to need to balance the needs of employees with the company’s plans to get people back to the office and happy about being there, he says.
At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was rampant speculation that one of the long-term implications would be the end of the office. While the workplace will undoubtedly become a hybrid environment with more employees working remotely at least part of the time, the reality is that companies will still have offices. In fact, according to a poll of more than 200 respondents conducted during a recent Gartner webinar, only 1% of midsize companies are planning on becoming fully remote organisations. On the other end of the spectrum, only 5% of midsize companies are planning on having all employees come back to the physical workplace. The remaining 94% will have some mix of in-office, remote, and hybrid employees.
As more individuals are getting vaccinated, business leaders need to shift their thinking from the abstract question of where employees will work to the reality that there is a specific day on the calendar that some kind of return to the office will actually occur. That day appears to be approaching quickly, as the same Gartner poll found that 69% of midsize companies are planning on reopening their workplaces in the second half of 2021. The question of how to return to the office will be more challenging than the abrupt shift to remote work was in March of 2020, given the variability of rules, regulations, and people’s vaccination status.
Fostering a Safe Environment
The number one issue that has to be managed before employees come back to the office is safety, says Tami Simon, corporate consulting leader and senior vice president at Segal, a human resources and employee benefits consulting company. “Above all else, employees need to feel safe: physically, mentally, and financially. Employers should transparently describe how they plan to make their workplace a safe place,” she says. In addition to the physical measures companies need to take, employees need to feel like they won’t face consequences for expressing their needs or feeling reluctant to head back to the office, she says.
Many employees harbor concerns about how safe the workplace will be. Communicate your company’s reopening plan to employees well in advance of the actual date. Communications should indicate the actual safety measures you’ll have in place, as well as enhance perceptions of safety. For example, if employees commute primarily via mass transit, they’ll also be seeking guidance or reassurance about the safety of their journeys to work.
Define and communicate your hybrid work strategy. Gartner’s 2021 Hybrid Work Employee Survey of more than 2,400 knowledge workers found that 54% of employees agreed that their employer’s approach to flexibility will impact whether they’ll stay at their organization. A hybrid approach will allow employers to meet employees’ new flexibility preferences.
Rethink the Office Space
Create a space that people want to come back to. That may include changes to the physical space and accommodating needs like standing desks to help employees avoid being sedentary all day. If you are going to rotate employees who are in and out of the office, you may wish to consider abandoning fixed desks and create workstations that can be shared. This is an opportunity to reconsider how the work is done and where it’s done. Giving employees what they need, possibly including having their main workstation at home, will help them better adapt to the time spent in the office.
Management teams face a challenge in determining exactly who those mission-critical employees are. Some roles, such as sales or relationship management, that have historically been viewed as requiring face-to-face interaction, may need to evolve given changing health guidelines and customer preferences, as well as the advisability of travel for non-essential purposes. Other roles undeniably depend on onsite tools or technology and can’t be done effectively without them.
Likewise, it’s essential to recognize that workforces will need time to adapt to new ways of working post-pandemic. Employees coming back after an extended furlough or period of remote work may find the physical layout of their workplace changed and their shift schedule altered. For office workers, returning to a workplace may require a mindset shift for those who’ve adjusted to working remotely. In order to navigate these changes, management should make sure employees understand what’s being asked of them and what steps the company is taking to protect their health.
Re-acclimating an onsite workforce will present an enormous change management challenge for executives, who will need a communication strategy that can help employees who are returning to the workplace, as well as those who continue to work remotely, embrace a shared vision of what comes next. And they should work with human resources teams to prepare for a potential uptick in ethics and compliance complaints from employees whose concerns persist.
Providing employees with the chance to make their challenges and concerns known may help management teams identify potential problems with their return-to-the-workplace plans. By enabling real, two-way communication, leaders may turn the COVID-19 crisis into an opportunity to strengthen corporate culture, increase employee engagement and boost productivity and loyalty over the long run.
While the desire is to return to “normal” as quickly as possible, the reality is that the workplaces employees return to in 2021 will not look like the ones they left in 2020. Encouraging employees to get vaccinated is good, but it’s not enough. The companies that are thoughtful about safety, flexibility, and clear communication will have the most success as we enter another period of profound change.
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