Planning a Safe, Successful Return to the Office

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You might have PPE ordered and social distancing plans ready, but have you checked the pulse of the people in your organisation?

With a return to offices pending, organisations are gearing up with logistical safety matters at the forefront of their minds. Progressive, future-focussed employers have already spent months laying out their plans for a safe, smooth return, aided by an organised, plan-do-check-act approach.

The biggest challenge will not be in the overall logistics, but in employee management. Leaders should be mindful of the fact that employees can decline a return to office life if they believe they are at risk, so there is added pressure on the employer to get this right. 

In a recent article in The Guardian, Employment Lawyer, Matt Gingell, noted that employees might have an unfair dismissal claim if their employer fires them for refusing to return to a workplace they reasonably believe is unsafe. The last thing any organisation wants at this stage is grievance cases to deal with.

So, what will be the smart move for the big corporates?

Will they keep people working remotely for longer or have they noticed a drop in productivity and their bottom line that makes them keen to get everyone back into the office ASAP? If they have, they cannot immediately put it down to remote working, as they will understand there is the economic impact to add to the mix. With so many factors, Leaders will be grappling with ‘cloudy information’ and may feel like they are in an impossible position to get this right.

While I see numerous articles focussed on the logistics of health and safety at work, I do not see any that focus on employee happiness and mental wellbeing in returning to work. I would urge leaders to prioritise this and take time to understand the impacts of decisions on your employees. If leaders fail to do this, they might have a revolution on their hands (and a stack of grievances piled on their desks). The effect of that? A severe impact on productivity, bottom line, employee wellbeing and company reputation.

What can leaders do to help?

A well-informed hybrid transition is the way through. To be successful, this must be thoroughly planned and implemented in phases. I recommend the following Phases.

Phase 1 — Analyse

Take time to listen to your staff. Do a survey — who wants to return immediately and who doesn’t? Who will need some extra help if their children have not yet returned to school? Do any staff have elderly family members, ailing or at risk and in need of care? Gather this kind of crucial data before you start planning.

Understand, your staff are people, all with different motivations. This period has affected their home lives, relationships, health, and well being inside and outside of work. You aren’t planning a regular organisational or project change; you are planning for a life change.

Please get to know your staff on an individual level. In large corporations, one leader cannot possibly understand the preferences of every individual, but that’s why you have managers. If they are doing their jobs, they should already know this. If they don’t, they should take fast action to understand this.

But leaders should remember that managers are people, too. Do you know your managers’ work preferences? Start there, after setting your own. You have to be happy for them to be happy. Behaviour passes down. 

If you have inherited your team, then you have an even more significant cultural change on your hands. Do you have adequate support? Lead the way and set the direction, authentically.

A happy workforce = great results.

If you are not surveying staff now, you will soon find yourself in reactive mode, dealing with myriad issues you could have entirely prevented. So, my advice is to get onto this ASAP.

Phase 2 — Create a transition plan. A big bang approach is not the answer.

I recommend a trial phase with the individuals that indicate they are happy to return to work in the survey from Phase 1. Supportive, encouraged individuals will help quickly tease out the immediate issues and smooth the way for Phase 2 and beyond. 

What’s the timescale for this transition? Truth is, none of us know the end dates yet, so start your planning now and be ready for Day 1 of Phase 1 transition (You should have an idea of this for your organisation). Left to right planning will not work here. I would urge leaders to do some right to left planning to understand the size of this challenge before expected end dates are agreed on.

Phase 3 — Phase review, adapt, grow, and go again.

Even the best laid plans often go awry. Take time to reflect on your plans and tweak them based on feedback from staff and team members.

What are your potential risks, and have you made plans to mitigate them?

Risk: People are confused about what is happening.
Impact
: Uncertainty, stress, people off sick, productivity drops, more weight on other staff’s shoulders.
Mitigation
: Communicate, communicate, communicate! Keep staff informed. If you don’t know the answers yet, be honest about that; leaving them in the dark will only make things worse.

Risk: Managers are not equipped to deal with these emotional conversations.
Impact
: Employees feel undervalued and unheard. There is a disconnect between ground level and leadership. An unhappy workforce inevitably means a hit to your bottom line.
Mitigation
: Put your managers through some Emotional Intelligence and People Management training. There are underlying causes to employee behaviour; help your management learn to recognise them.

Risk: Employees are ill-equipped to deal with the changes.
Impact
: Reduced productivity. If your staff can’t work, your organisation cannot function.
Mitigation: Encourage employees to do some Emotional Resilience Training. Recommend Mindfulness practices that can help with stress relief. Create return-to-work plans that are agreed and signed off by both the employee and the manager, and include regular review points.

I will reiterate because it’s by far the most important thing you can do to ensure your success upon returning to the office: communicate, communicate, communicate. Make sure everyone knows what is going to happen in their workplace, why it’s happening, and how it might affect their work. If your own boss isn’t doing this, speak up and let them know they need to take action quickly.

You are a team. Now, more than ever is the time to start listening to each other, try to understand each other’s pain points, and take action. If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that we need to look after each other, value each other. You are a family — not of the biological kind, but most of you probably spend more time with your colleagues than you do at home — so it’s time to start treating your colleagues and staff as an extended family. If you can do that, if you can keep that in mind with every plan you make, you can make a triumphant return to the office.

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