Following months of employees working remotely in response to COVID-19, businesses are now facing a new challenge: how and when to return to the office safely. Despite uncertainties and significant logistical concerns, a post-COVID-19 workplace is inevitable, even as organizations work to adapt facilities based on evolving guidelines from public health institutions.
To successfully transition into this next phase of work, companies will have to beef up their current strategies, be flexible and make their employees’ safety and well-being their top priority. Additionally, with a larger percentage of employees continuing to work remotely and expectations that teams increasingly will be composed of both in-office and remote employees, businesses will need to bolster collaboration tools and techniques so employees can continue to work together effectively, regardless of location. No one solution will work for every company, but a reintroduction to office life without a well-thought-out plan can be risky and dangerous. In this blog, we offer helpful tips, suggestions and considerations for safely returning to work after COVID-19.
What Will Returning to Work Post COVID-19 Look Like?
With ongoing uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, no one knows precisely what returning to work will look like post COVID-19. Some companies will remain fully remote, while others will return their entire staff to the office. The vast majority of organizations will be somewhere in between those two extremes. Global Workplace Analytics, a research firm that specializes in remote work trends, predicts that 25–30% of U.S. employees will work from home multiple days per week by the end of 2021, up from 3.6% of employees who cited working from home multiple days per week prior to the health crisis.
What Is a Hybrid Work Model?
A hybrid work model is made up of both remote and in-office workers and gives employees the ability to choose how, where and when they perform their job duties. This often includes office spaces designed around flexible work arrangements where employees come and go from the office based on preference and as project work dictates.
Perhaps as a sign that the future of work has arrived, several large enterprise companies have formally announced new policies designed to embrace a hybrid work model that gives employees the option to voluntarily return to the office or continue to work remotely for an indefinite period.
In a recent interview, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey explained his company’s intent to embrace hybrid work, saying, “If our employees are in a role and situation that enables them to work from home and they want to continue to do so forever, we will make that happen. If not, our offices will be their warm and welcoming selves, with some additional precautions, when we feel it’s safe to return.” Ultimately, returning to work after COVID-19 will look different for every organization, so you have to find a solution that works best for the safety and welfare of all your employees.
10 Tips for Companies Returning to Work after COVID-19
Companies planning to transition their employees back into the office need a plan that maintains safety, rebuilds morale and keeps employees’ comfort and well-being in mind. Below are ten tips, suggestions and considerations to ensure a successful transition back to work post COVID-19. Organizations should also work to implement preventive and safety measures as provided by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as state and local public health officials.
1. Embrace a hybrid work model
Perhaps the best way to maintain employees’ productivity and keep everyone happy during this transitional period is to allow employees to work from wherever they are most comfortable and productive. In a recent study, research firm Valoir found that remote work had only a small negative impact (1–3%) on productivity during COVID-19 despite significant logistical challenges due to the abrupt change, including lack of adequate home office equipment and insufficient child care for working parents.
You may find that some employees want to return to the office while others work best from home or need to continue to work remotely for medical or personal reasons. Creating a hybrid work model with a mix of remote and in-office workers gives employees the flexibility to return to the office only if they are comfortable and ready. Additionally, having a smaller staff return to the office can help workers follow social distancing regulations and reduce the spread of coronavirus.
2. Implement a rotational work schedule
Another great way to mitigate COVID-19 risks in your office is to implement a rotational work schedule. For example, divide your in-office employees in half and set a schedule whereby each group rotates days they commute into the office (be sure to divide each department evenly to avoid large clusters of employees working physically close together). This gives every employee the opportunity to work from home and from the office every week while also limiting the total number of in-office employees at any given time. Of course, both groups can continue to effectively work together using communication tools like chat apps and video conferencing.
3. Take a phased approach
Having your entire workforce return to the office on day one is not realistic. Consider implementing a phased approach where a small percentage of employees return to the office over a period of time. For example, you can start with 25% of your in-office workers returning to the office during the first phase. If all goes well, increase to 50% of employees returning to the office a few weeks later, and so on. A phased approach reduces the burden already levied upon sanitary crews who are working overtime to keep up with the demanding cleaning schedule and reduces the risk of a contagious employee returning to the office and passing the illness on to your entire staff.
4. Restructure your offices
Social distancing guidelines aren’t going away anytime soon, so offices will need to properly space desks apart and create appropriate barriers between employees’ workstations. To help facilities and HR professionals with making these accommodations, a company in the Netherlands has created a working model called the “6 Feet Office” designed to help employees safely work in the same shared office space while social distancing. Additionally, companies may need to institute policies to limit the number of people per meeting and outsiders visiting the office unannounced.
5. Create a sanitary workplace
All tables, desks, chairs and communal spaces will need to be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected daily. According to Jay Varkey, associate professor of medicine at the Emory University School of Medicine, “There should be a hand sanitizer station at the entrance and exit of every elevator.” Businesses should also consider establishing hand sanitizing stations in high-traffic areas and by high-touch surfaces like the lobby, break rooms and conference rooms. If possible, keep doors propped open to reduce the touching of handles. The CDC also recommends opening windows if possible, installing high-efficiency air filters and adjusting air conditioners to increase air circulation and flow.
6. Encourage good hygiene and self-isolation
Encourage all employees to frequently and thoroughly wash their hands throughout the day and avoid touching their eyes, noses and mouths. Additionally, staff should be educated on the signs and symptoms of COVID-19 and stay home if they are feeling ill to prevent spreading germs in the office. Consider implementing a flexible sick time policy to accommodate employees who test positive for coronavirus.
7. Have a contingency plan
With the ongoing uncertainty around COVID-19, you must remain flexible and prepared. Have a contingency plan in place in case there is an outbreak of the virus within your office. You will need to act quickly and aggressively to stop its spread. Employees should take their laptops and work home daily in case they need to start working remotely with short notice.
8. Get employee feedback
It’s important not to forget the human factor during this difficult time. Your employees have spent weeks or months working from home without physically interacting with their colleagues and are now expected to return to the office but maintain their distance from one another. All these changes will likely be challenging for your staff. To ensure you’re moving forward in the right direction, ask your employees for feedback to see what is working and what areas can be improved.
9. Review your communication tools
As some employees continue to work from home while others return to the office, it’s essential to have the right tools in place for seamless communication and productivity. Assess your team’s needs and get instant messaging and video conferencing tools set up and ready to go to avoid any delays when work commences. Prioritize face-to-face interactions to ensure remote workers feel just as connected and informed as their in-office colleagues. Lifesize’s lifelike video quality makes it feel like your entire team is meeting together in the same room and lets you connect on a deeper level by being able to see and hear your remote team members. Distributed teams will fail to be effective if they don’t meet face to face regularly.
10. Maintain team-building efforts
Employees may feel overwhelmed or disconnected during this transitional phase. You can keep team morale high by introducing team-building activities that promote company culture. For teams with remote members, you may want to plan virtual team-building activities like virtual happy hours, ice-breaker activities, online games, wine tastings, and so on. To make these team-building events even more fun and engaging, you can use virtual backgrounds and amusing filters while on a conference call. Additionally, you can create private channels in chat tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams for employees to have casual, non-work-related conversations or connect with remote members of your team in a virtual break room using Lifesize.
What We’ve Learned about Remote Work During COVID-19
Working during the coronavirus pandemic has been challenging for organizations and employees globally, but it hasn’t been all bad. Many employees experienced working from home for the first time and gained a new perspective and insight into remote work. Some employees found they have a better work-life balance and are even more productive and engaged while working away from the office. Businesses had to quickly figure out how to support a fully remote workforce and implement communication strategies and tools to keep their employees connected and engaged. Here are a few things we’ve learned about remote work during the pandemic.
1. Video collaboration goes a long way
Not surprisingly, the demand for video conferencing dramatically surged when employees around the world started working remotely. With social distancing and stay-at-home orders in place, video conferencing helped employees stay connected with their colleagues and customers while adding a personalized touch to the conversation. Teams could safely meet face to face without worrying about spreading COVID-19 to one another.
In addition to business-related meetings, video conferencing became the go-to solution for team-building activities. Traditional happy hours, office parties and social events became virtual experiences through video conferencing, which served as the closest alternative to in-person get-togethers.
2. Remote work saves money for employers and employees
Remote work can be advantageous for both employers and employees. Fully remote workers save organizations, on average, $22,000 a year per employee since the company does not have to provide the worker with office real estate, electricity, food, beverages, and so forth. For employees, working from home gives them a flexible work schedule without time lost due to commuting. Studies show a remote employee saves, on average, $7,000 a year due to the reduced costs in travel, parking and food.
3. Better work-life balance for remote workers
A 2019 survey reported that 91% of remote workers chose to work from home to have a better work-life balance. While there is a big difference between “choosing” to work remotely and being “forced” to work from home because of a pandemic, many employees have recently experienced some of the positive aspects of remote work like spending more time with their families, having a flexible work schedule and increased productivity. In a survey by Tiny Pulse, an employee-engagement tool, 91% of remote workers asserted they get more work done outside the office.
4. Remote infrastructure works
Although tools and solutions for remote work have been around for years, many organizations were not prepared to support a fully remote workforce at the start of the pandemic. This sudden shift in the way we work forced companies to review their tech-stack and come up with a remote infrastructure that connects their employees and keeps their businesses running without interruptions. The modern workforce no longer exists in a single office location. Dynamic, collaborative tools and cloud-based solutions have made it possible for distributed teams all over the world to effectively and productively work together regardless of their location.
The health and safety of your staff was the driving force for having all your employees work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, so the health and safety of your employees should be your ultimate goal when returning them to the workplace. Keep these tips and considerations in mind when developing your plan for transitioning back into office life. Things may not return to normal for a while, if ever, so you want to make this transition as easy and comfortable as possible for your employees.