As COVID-19 restrictions are eased in some parts of the world, businesses who have had employees working from home for the past few months now have decisions to make about whether to require their employees to return to the office or whether they should keep working from home.
Reopening your office is likely going to be challenging: the pandemic is far from over and it will require you to take additional steps in order to ensure that your employees are protected and your office environment is safe.
For many organizations around the world, it isn’t going to be safe to return to the office for quite some time. But for others, it may be time to start cautiously planning a return to the office for at least some employees.
Return to office or not?
How you move back to working from the office will depend on many factors including government regulations and requirements you need to comply with, how you are able to do this within the confines of your office, and the type of work that your employees carry out in the office.
A phased or staggered return to the office, in most cases, might be the best way to start…with some employees working from home and some returning to the office. This means that the number of people in the office at any one time is limited, reducing risk of coronavirus spreading.
There are different ways to do this. It could include having a roster of different “teams” who work one week from the office and one week from home, or you might have volunteers who wish to work in the office again all the time and others who would like to remain at home.
Lessons learned from China’s return to the office
China was the first country in the world to navigate its way out of the COVID-19 restrictions after the city of Wuhan was closed down for a few months at the beginning of 2020.
Chinese businesses learned that they couldn’t go straight back to business as usual: the unique threats posed by the virus meant that they needed to take a flexible approach to returning to the office, including the staggered return to work approach mentioned above.
Other steps Chinese businesses took include ensuring there was adequate social distancing in the office, providing transport alternatives so employees could avoid public transport and carrying out health and safety checks on entry to the workplace.
Because there is currently no cure or vaccine against the virus, it remains a threat that could reemerge at any stage. Planning for an extended period of business disruption is also important. In China and elsewhere around the world, some businesses have reopened only to have to close again later when COVID-19 spikes occur.
Internal communication also played an important role. Keeping employees informed throughout the entire process of transitioning back to the office, with frequent communication across all internal communication channels was critical to success.
Many Chinese companies turned to popular local apps such as DingTalk or WeChat to communicate with their employees, avoiding email. Others turned to internal apps to encourage employee sharing and interaction. Some multinational companies found their global communication channels were not comparable with the local communication technologies preferred by Chinese employees.
Good employee communication should be clear, consistent and transparent. It should also include two-way feedback - a return to office survey of employees can help to understand any concerns your frontline employees have that need to be addressed before they return to the office.
How other companies are transitioning back to the office
This issue is one of millions of businesses around the world are grappling with and ensuring they have appropriate protocols and measures in place, which may require changes to employee behavior.
The global investment bank, Citigroup, for example, opened its New York offices again in June. While only a very small amount of its workforce has returned (around 5%) it has sought volunteers from employees with roles that aren’t suited to working from home to be among the first to return to the office.
Citigroup’s employees are being shown videos explaining the new rules on their return to the office building - including how they have to enter the building and protocols around bathroom usage. Fewer chairs are in conference rooms, and plexiglass is being used to separate desks.
Another New York based company, Silverstein Properties, has returned its employees to the office by dividing them into three groups. Each group of employees must attend the office for two days, followed by four days of working remotely. The company has installed shields made from plexiglass at its desks and antimicrobial films on surfaces in common areas that are touched a lot.
Checklist for a return to the office building after COVID
Whether to continue remote work, or begin transitioning your employees back to the office is a big decision to make, and will take intensive planning and weighing up a range of factors.
1. Legal guidelines
- Determine whether it is safe to reopen. Does the community you operate in require ongoing shelter in place or other restrictions? If yes, there could be legal consequences to reopening in spite of these directives.
- Determine what government requirements are in place and make a plan to comply with them. Will any government mandates limit the way you can reopen?
2. Operational considerations
- Examine how work from home arrangements have been working in your organization - have they been successful or problematic?
- Has productivity decreased during the work from home period?
- Are there functions or tasks that can’t be carried out remotely?
- Has your technology routinely failed?
- Determine which employees should return to the office first, and when.
- Prepare managers to be able to transition their team members back to the workplace, giving them tools to help manage the situation.
- Consult with employees and their representatives about their preferences and concerns.
3. Workplace arrangements
- Are you able to put measures in place to protect any employees in a higher risk category?
- Have you implemented enhanced cleaning and disinfecting protocols?
- Review your workplace layout and consider changes that need to be made in order to adhere to social distancing. Cancellation of all non-essential business travel.
- Ensure appropriate distances between seats/desks.
- Provide barriers.
- Place visual markers on the floor.
- Develop elevator protocols to prevent crowding.
- Provide sanitizers, masks and other PPE.
- Encourage etiquette with coughing and sneezing.
- Staggered opening and closing times,
- Restrictions on some shared spaces or shared facilities.
- Determine how employees can get to and from work safely - if they are using public transport, will they be putting their colleagues at risk?
4. Update policies and procedures
- Develop and distribute training materials on safety procedures around the return to the office building.
- Develop protocols around sick employees - anyone with symptoms must stay home.
- Develop protocols around anyone who has been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19 - must isolate for a specified period of time.
- Implement employee health checks.
- Protocols if an employee tests positive for COVID-19.
- Have clear policies about illness and reporting it to Human Resources.
- Develop an emergency communications plan and review communications channels.
- Develop regular and COVID related internal communications messages and resources.
Returning employees to the office building after the coronavirus pandemic isn’t simple and straightforward, and many changes could be with us for a long time to come. Being prepared for the issues that may arise and being committed to communicating openly with your employees will go a long way during the transition.