How to Bring People Back to the Workplace

4 questions to help you reopen in a COVID-19 world

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we work—permanently. Going forward, we need strategies for a new normal where we protect the health of employees, customers, and the public at large. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. This is a time to explore the needs and abilities to determine your organization’s next steps.

Here are four questions to help you navigate the return to the workplace. They take into account employee well-being, organizational culture, and transforming your floorplate.

1.      How is your team doing right now?
As we adapted to stay-at-home orders, millions of people learned how to work remotely. Those who already worked remotely, even part of the time, had an advantage: They knew how to manage the technology and what locations in their home worked best. For millions of others, working remotely was a radical shift. However, even among the most experienced remote workers, no one was prepared for work at home, school at home, and being confined for months. And some people who live alone have spent this time in severe isolation.

Now is the time to evaluate how your organization has been performing. Are some working well remotely? Are some struggling? Is there anyone who is unable to work at all?

Gather qualitative and quantitative data to generate ideas for moving forward.

Turn to managers and HR to open conversations with employees to see how they are doing. Hold virtual focus groups. Conduct surveys about how people are using time and technology; what’s working well—and how could they be better supported? Is it feasible to continue doing their jobs from home?

Enlist IT to analyze financial and system data. How often are video conference reservations made? What can you learn from VPN and keystroke data? What effect has the pandemic had on KPIs and sales goals? (Check out this article for more insights on capturing data on remote work.)

2.      Who needs to return to the workplace?
Several factors will affect which employees return to the workplace, when, and for how long.

Data from your exploration of how your team is doing will reveal who’s struggling at home and what teams really need to be on site.

Safety, of course, is the top priority. Employers need to convey a clear understanding of new safety protocols, shift unassigned spaces to assigned ones, and adjust configurations. Available safe space will have an impact on who returns to the workplace.

Plus, consideration of your organization’s culture type will help drive decisions. For example, in a Collaborate culture, where people find unity in being together, extended periods of remote work may have an adverse psychological effect. Create cultures, where people embrace new ways of working, may thrive. Control cultures will need to be clear about expectations in order to avert burnout. And, Compete cultures will need easy access to company, team, and project information to maintain their competitive edge.

3.      How does your floorplate need to change?
Floorplates must transform to allow more space between coworkers, more separation between groups, and enough space for physical distancing in shared spaces. Density simply must decrease to protect people’s health.

Limiting who needs to return to the workplace, spreading out workspaces, and adding desktop separation screens are good short-term steps. When making adjustments to the physical workspace, take affordances (elements of a space that encourage certain behaviors) into account. How will sound travel in the newly reconfigured space? Does the space support physical distancing yet still allow coworkers to connect? Do people have options to safely move throughout the day and change posture? What resources will they need to feel secure and work effectively?

Implementing a zone approach to space allows for movement throughout the day, enabling people to safely find the right space to perform different tasks. Even though they are required to maintain physical distance, people will still need places to focus, collaborate, restore, and even play.

4.      How might you schedule work differently?
In the midst of a pandemic, we’ve already seen how grocery stores have changed schedules in order to protect employees. Instead of remaining open 24 hours, they close overnight to clean, disinfect, and restock. Offices will also have to adapt to new work hours to protect employee well-being. This may mean staggered start times and breaks to limit the number of people in spaces like elevators, corridors, and cafeterias.

One idea by Fast Company offers a twist on the four-day work week. In this model, businesses reopen by allowing employees to work four days on followed by 10 days off. This two-week cycle allows people to alternate working together for short periods with isolation that could stop the spread of infection.

Collaboration tools and technology will shape the new work schedule and help maintain connections between those on-site and remote. What tools are you using for communicating, conferencing, and sharing files? Are they slowing you down or allowing you to advance at the speed you want? Secure, collaborative workspaces like our Bluescape technology allow people to work on projects simultaneously whether they are remote or in the office. Technology is a key tool for balancing the needs of health protection and timely productivity.

This Is Just the Beginning
Best practices for protecting health in the workplace are evolving each day. For example, the Lear seating plant in Flint, Michigan held an open house for their employees before returning to work. Their leaders used this opportunity to help the workforce feel safe and comfortable upon their return. We will continue to share what we discover to help your organization protect employee well-being, maintain its culture, and transform your floorplate.

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