With the COVID-19 vaccine now widely available in the United States to those who are eligible, the percentage of Americans getting vaccinated is rising. This development is causing employers across the country to reflect on whether to call their employees who have been working remotely due to the pandemic back into the workplace.
Many employees have been working remotely for over a year now. They may have established a comfortable work/life balance in terms of caring for loved ones and handling household tasks while tackling their work obligations. Some may also continue to have concerns about the COVID-19 virus and workplace safety. Because of this, some employees may be hesitant to return to the workplace despite leadership’s wishes.
As such, HR teams, trainers, and supervisors will not only need to prepare themselves for their own reentry but also need to work closely with employees and teams to understand their wishes when it comes to remote working arrangements and any potential concerns about returning to the office. Timing, planning, understanding the ramifications of changes, ensuring there is a clear communication plan, and adapting to a new normal will be critical to a successful transition.
Allow for a Transition Period
Many employees took on additional roles in their personal life during the COVID-19 pandemic, as shutdowns impacted many childcare centers and prevented access to elder care. Ongoing health concerns or other circumstances may mean employees will continue to play multiple roles. HR leaders should keep this in mind as they plan to recall employees back to the workplace. Providing 6 to 8 weeks’ notice before mandating a return to the office can help employees plan accordingly and ready themselves and their loved ones for the change. HR leaders may also want to consider bringing managers back to the office first before the full employee base so they can troubleshoot for pain points and address those before bringing the remaining staff back.
Additionally, this extra time can help HR and training managers prepare for their new normal. Countless procedures and regulations have changed since the last time all employees were in the office. These weeks may allow for training materials to be updated, policy documents to be modified, and virtual trainings/retrainings on new or existing workplace equipment and tools to be conducted.
If supervisors have been holding transparent conversations with their employees throughout the past year, they likely know what is going on in many employees’ lives at home. The transition back to in-person work may be difficult for many, and supervisors should acknowledge this, remaining patient throughout the time their employees need to prepare. Being understanding can help employees feel valued as they make their way back into the office environment.
Have a Plan
The COVID-19 pandemic made many businesses realize they had no way to continue operations in a crisis. It’s important that businesses have a newly structured continuity plan prepared if cases were to spike again, causing another round of shutdowns, or if a different emergency were to occur. This plan should include steps on transitioning to remote work, including access to necessary tools and technology, and a clear communications strategy. HR teams can keep this documented plan filed, updating it regularly, to ensure preparedness in the event of a crisis.
Having the appropriate processes in place, such as a business continuity plan, for an emergency can make all the difference. Training managers should work with HR teams to ensure they are well versed in the plan and that the process is reliable, leaving no topic or process unaddressed.
In case this plan is needed, supervisors should be prepared with a strategy of their own on how to lead their teams remotely if need be. With the flexible scheduling many businesses are considering post-pandemic, this plan could also help support the evolving needs of a modern workforce that is increasingly hybrid at baseline.
Change Is Inevitable
Health and safety are the number one priorities as employees begin to return to the office. Whether or not employees choose to get vaccinated, these are topics employees are more aware of than ever before. It’s up to employers and their HR teams to ensure they update health and safety procedures so employees are comfortable returning to the office and that those procedures and standards are properly communicated. Employers with a larger employee base should consider offering a staggered or rotating schedule to help minimize traffic in the office, allowing employees to ease back into office culture and feel safe in the process.
Additionally, there have been various updates due to the pandemic, including new and modified paid-time-off laws and safety requirements and regulations at the federal, state, and local level. Training should be conducted on all of these updates, as well as any company policy changes, as they are crucial for employers to remain compliant and employees to feel comfortable and confident in their return to the office.
Supervisors can work with their direct reports to prepare them for these changes and any updated health and safety policies. Having conversations with employees can help supervisors better understand each team member’s comfort level and work with the appropriate leader to ensure their concerns are being heard. This transparency can be beneficial to both the employer and the employee, shedding light on what needs to be addressed and what’s being prioritized.
Nothing Beats Good Communication
Employees should not be blindsided by an employer’s decision to transition back into the office. HR teams should be ready to offer a fully transparent, phased plan to employees, including how health and safety will continue to be prioritized in the office.
Additionally, training should be conducted for leaders on how to communicate the news and respond to all questions employees may have regarding the news of their return to the worksite. Having prepared responses in a frequently asked questions format can lessen the questions and concerns from employees in the future.
Supervisors should be ready to have uncomfortable conversations with their employees, as some may not be looking forward to returning to the office environment. Being prepared with approved responses to the myriad reasons employees may be hesitant to return to the office can help supervisors be more confident in these conversations.
The New ‘Normal’
Understanding that coming back to the office may be as big of a change as sudden remote work was in 2020, there are a wide variety of complex factors employers of all sizes should consider before opening their doors to employees once again. From HR teams to training managers and supervisors, it’s up to leadership to ensure the business is ready and that employees are comfortable, prepared, and ready to walk through the office doors once again.