Considerations for Businesses Returning to the Office

Office life and work culture have changed dramatically since the pandemic, and a return to the office requires thoughtful planning from employers.

Months after America’s workers gathered up the critical contents of their cubicles and offices and headed home to ride out the pandemic, many in the workforce remain working remotely or have returned to office life that looks very different than it did before the pandemic began. As of September 2020, only about one-quarter of the nation’s office workers had returned to their offices, according to commercial real estate firm CBRE.

Many business leaders all over the country are asking the same question: what does a return to the office look like? The answer is complex. It depends not only on health concerns but also on acknowledging just how much work culture has shifted since COVID-19 took hold. Business leaders are recognizing that even if workers return, the office they’re returning to will likely feel very different than the one they left.

Chances are, when you sent your staff home at the start of the pandemic, you expected them to return within weeks. As that reality shifted, many companies quickly accelerated the adoption of practices, protocols and tools to allow productivity and collaboration from home.

Now, with work-from-home routines established, the desire to return to how things once were is complicated by the realization that it might be time to reconsider work arrangements for good. Consider this: When management consulting firm Korn Ferry asked more than 1,000 office workers what they were looking forward to about a return to the office, 1 in 5 replied, “nothing.” For many companies and workers, a full return to the office may simply be unrealistic.

The decision to reopen your office is one that requires full consideration of many factors and will be a different analysis for each company. Where you’re located, what your company produces, and the work that is needed from your team may influence reopening. If you choose to reopen your office, making plans to do so in a way that allows for maximum productivity without damaging relationships with staff is critical.

Health and Safety

When bringing employees back after a long period of remote work, the first consideration should be your team’s health and safety. Over the months of virus spread, we know more about how it’s transmitted and steps we can take to prevent infection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is providing voluminous resources, including return-to-work tools for specific industries and occupations. Among other things, the CDC has provided the following general recommendations:

  1. Consider conducting daily in-person or virtual COVID-19 health checks: Before returning to the office, ask workers if they’ve experienced any COVID-19 symptoms, including fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue and others. Ask if they’re currently awaiting COVID-19 test results or have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and are not yet cleared to end isolation. Some workplaces have installed touchless thermometers for on-site temperature monitoring.
  2. An exposure response plan: Your plan needs to address isolation, containment and contact tracing protocol, so everyone knows what to do in the event that an employee is infected. You’ll need to be clear on how long an employee should stay home and how an infection will be communicated to staff.
  3. Personal protective equipment (PPE): Depending on your space, PPE might include hand sanitizer, masks, shields and gloves. You may also erect barriers like shields in certain workspaces.
  4. Cleaning procedures: Employees will want to know that offices, especially common areas like bathrooms and kitchens, are cleaned frequently and effectively.
  5. Social distancing: You may need to move individual desks or workspaces and place restrictions in common areas like conference rooms. Staggered work schedules may be effective for certain workplaces.
  6. Business travel: Most business travel should be curtailed.
  7. Customers and visitors: You may need to limit the number of visitors at any given time and reconfigure your space to ensure proper distancing. If you have a physical product, customers may need a contactless way to pick it up.
  8. Government regulations: Check with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for record-keeping guidelines for COVID-19 to ensure you’re following proper procedures. Continue to check for updates on the CDC’s website as well.

Productivity and Morale

Once your workers are back and safety protocols are in place, corporate leaders face a delicate balance when it comes to fostering effective work. Take steps to ensure that employees feel safe in their ability to work together and be as productive as possible. While many workers have reported increased levels of productivity while working from home, some may feel a loss of camaraderie or decreased morale and will embrace returning to the office if they feel safe and able to work productively. According to a Harris Poll survey, 60 percent of working adults said they feel less connected to their teams since working remotely. A supportive company culture and efforts to foster increased engagement among teams can help combat these challenges.

For many companies, the right answer may be a mix of in-office and remote work. Some large companies have led the way on this, offering many employees the ability to take a hybrid approach. This approach acknowledges the strides many teams have made in collaborating remotely while still allowing for in-person meetings when needed. It also gives employees who want to return to the office full-time the opportunity to do so while allowing others to have flexibility.

As some businesses have begun to bring workers back, they’ve found recreating spontaneous interactions that foster collaboration and group settings that enrich brainstorms difficult in the post-COVID office. Instead, some workers hunker down in their socially distanced spaces, calling in to video calls just as they would from home. Gone, too, may be the small talk which often helps to foster a feeling of connectedness for some employees.

Consultancy McKinsey & Co. makes a few recommendations to help your teams get some of the in-office magic back. The key is not to rely on what used to drive connection and collaboration, but rather to come up with new ways to foster that connection.

  1. Consider the layout of your space. Do traditional cubicles still make sense? Or would your space be better served with more collaborative spaces, and fewer, smaller cubicle spaces, since solitary work may continue to happen at home?
  2. Don’t assume that the same answers will hold true for every role at an organization. For an employee who doesn’t rely on group interactions, it may not make sense to require them to return to the office unless the position requires in-person collaboration. At the same time, a creative team may have the ability to coordinate in-office time to participate in brainstorms, as long as the office space has been configured to allow it. Some companies may be able to devise hybrid solutions that offer the best of both worlds, potentially enhancing productivity and morale in the process.

Making the Right Decision for Your Business and Employees

Navigating this terrain is a complex task. The right path for most businesses is likely to be flexible and nimble at least for the foreseeable future, accounting for the uncharted waters you and your employees are operating in right now. Like many business challenges, keeping lines of communication open and pivoting as necessary can be difficult in the short-term but may strengthen company culture and employee loyalty over time.

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only shifted the way you manage existing employees, but also the way you find new employees. Learn how you can adjust your recruiting strategy to fit today’s job market.


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