Coronavirus lockdown restrictions are gradually being eased in some places around the globe. Over the coming weeks, staff will be swapping their slippers for shoes as they head back into offices and workplaces. While this return to normality is welcome news, business leaders and managers need to sensitively and carefully manage the process. After all, the virus is still a real threat. This is still a fluid situation. Workers will be feeling a sense of trepidation and nervousness at the thought of venturing out of lockdown. And increased demands are being made of employers to ensure the workplace is safe for everyone. Here are some returning to work after coronavirus tips to help you manage employee wellbeing as companies return to the physical office.
1. Stagger The Return Of Employees
Staff welfare and minimizing the health risks are, of course, top priorities. And large numbers of employees returning at once presents a significant health risk. Employees will understandably be concerned about contracting and spreading the virus.
A recent survey cited in Fortune reported that employees’ main fear about returning to the office is their co-workers’ behavior. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they were concerned “others in my office will behave in a way that puts me in danger.”
One way to manage staff trepidation and reduce the risks is by planning a staggered reintroduction to work. The experience of lockdown remote working has confirmed it’s unnecessary to have everyone in the office all of the time. In fact, most have managed to maintain operations and productivity with a distributed team of home workers.
A staggered return makes it easier to manage the requirement for social distancing plus the increased cleaning and disinfecting requirements.
Some teams will need to come back early to prepare the way for others. Facilities management will be responsible for the new physically-distanced desk spaces and sanitizing all equipment. IT workers are also likely to come back earlier to ensure computer systems are up and running. Beyond that, you will need to decide how best to stagger the return, so staff are available to cover all essential services. Those employees that are not in the office on any given day simply remain working from home.
2. Continue With Remote Working
Some employees are more vulnerable than others, and a return to work is not on the cards. Others may have family members who are at risk, and some may be struggling with childcare issues. Furthermore, there will be a portion of the workforce who prefer working from home and would like to continue.
Companies must address the welfare needs of all staff members and continue with the option of home working. Plus, it makes good business sense. Until a vaccine is rolled out, the possibility of further waves of the virus along with rolling lockdowns remains high. Staff will find it easier to adapt if they are already accustomed to mixed home and office working patterns.
3. Develop And Communicate New Office Protocols
The pandemic has disrupted much of what we took for granted in the office. Limits on social gatherings mean that team meetings are probably a no-go. Increased hygiene practices need to be incorporated into employee routines. Hot desking and sharing office equipment are no longer acceptable. Even the handshake greeting is off-limits. Staff need to know in advance what the expectations are. And more importantly, they need to be reassured that you are taking all the necessary precautions to keep them safe. Use all organizational communications channels, including the office intranet and staff newsletter, to get the message out there.
At a minimum, develop hygiene protocols, provide hand sanitizer, and, if appropriate, personal protective equipment. Discourage visitors to the office and where that’s unavoidable implement contact tracing procedures. Be sure to implement social distancing between individual desks and shared spaces like cafeterias. Restrict team meetings, instead use alternatives like video conferencing apps. As well as thoroughly cleaning all company laptops, it’s also worthwhile carrying out a security check. While home working, employees may well have downloaded software or video games that could compromise office systems.
And if you are struggling to keep on top of all the changing requirements, check out the following guidance. These federal bodies are regularly updating their guidelines in response to the evolving environment:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines
- Equal Employment Opportunity Commission laws.
Furthermore, keep a watchful eye out for industry-specific guidance from representative or governing bodies.
4. Ramp Up Your Communications Efforts
No doubt, you have been communicating more regularly with staff during the lockdown. And now is not the time to take your foot off the accelerator. In fact, as a nervous workforce contemplates a return to work, it’s time to take your communications to another level. Plus, staggering the return requires you to have social tools to connect HQ staff with those who are still telecommuting.
Regular communication will keep staff informed of what’s happening. And it will also provide reassurance. Use a variety of communication channels that will reach home workers as well as workplace-based teams. And be sure to include two-way communication channels. Employees will have plenty of questions and concerns that you will need to address. A company blog or forum allows staff to engage with managers and raise common issues.
Fake news, misinformation, and rumors have run rampant on social media throughout the pandemic. As staff return to work, they must have access to real-time updates from a trusted company source.
And why not take an employee pulse check with a staff survey. Use it to find out what employees are really feeling and what support they need to return to work. An employee survey will help you to focus your communication efforts on what’s important to staff.
5. Focus On Rebuilding Employee Morale
It will take time and effort to get the company culture and staff morale up to pre-Covid levels. The many weeks in lockdown will make the adjustment to working again painful for some employees. A lot will have happened. Some staff may have lost family members or colleagues to the virus. There will be other team members who are unable to return for a variety of reasons.
You will need to handle the situation sensitively. Business leaders need to acknowledge employees’ concerns and show empathy. Use positive language in your communications wherever possible. There’s enough doom and gloom in the media, so look to celebrate every company achievement and small step forward.
Encouraging employee-to-employee communication as an outlet is vital in this context. If you use instant messaging, why not set up a chat #channel such as #returntowork. Employees can use it to voice their concerns, share insights or solutions, and reconnect with colleagues informally. Social distancing makes it harder to enjoy those water cooler conversations with co-workers. Just as #channels supported a sense of community during the lockdown, so too will they help with the return to work.
And when the time is right, and the regulations allow, look to bring staff together in social events. It could be team outings and activities, or a shared pizza and a few drinks after work. The return to normalcy will be worth celebrating.
6. Promote Employee Wellness Initiatives
If you haven’t already got an employee wellness initiative in place, consider setting one up now. The return to work will see employees’ stress and anxiety levels increase. Looking after their mental health and wellbeing will be more relevant than ever.
Company walking groups or shared yoga classes may be off the agenda for a while, but there’s still lots you can do. Promoting mindfulness, breathing, or meditation techniques is one way to encourage staff wellness. In addition, highlight the importance of maintaining physical activity. Start a group chat where staff can share their favorite online exercise tutorials or home workouts. Getting outside and enjoying nature can make a big difference to mental wellbeing. Invite staff to share favorite local walks or photos of scenery and landscapes they have experienced. Encourage employees to look out for their colleagues and check that they are OK.
And if any employees are struggling, make sure they have access to local helplines or services that can help.
It makes good business sense to look after the health and wellbeing of your employers. And when it comes to managing the return to work, it’s what every responsible employer should be doing. Your staff will feel better supported and able to navigate the new ways of working. And you will also be developing a more agile and resilient workforce.
7. Review Your Processes And Learn From The Experience
Depending on local conditions, this whole process of returning to work may take several weeks or even months. The changes Covid-19 has unleashed in the workplace are still unfolding but are likely to have long-term consequences. The new normal may well be very different from what you previously experienced.
When all of this is over, it’s essential to review what has happened, and how your business responded. From home working, communications platforms, and cross-team collaboration through to returning to work, there will be valuable lessons to learn.
Although we all hope that the coronavirus pandemic can be brought under control, we may still see a second or even subsequent waves. Furthermore, extreme weather or even terrorist events may well strike to disrupt your future operations. To futureproof your business, you need to be prepared and ready to face the challenges. Take the time now to review what’s worked well and what needs to be improved. And you will be making a sound investment for the future.
8. Have An Open Door
Our final tip is to make sure you have an open door. Managers should know their staff well. Encourage leaders to develop an understanding of the individual circumstances of their team members. Some may be caring for vulnerable family members; others may be experiencing financial hardship. And you may have employees that have suffered the loss of loved ones due to coronavirus.
Furthermore, the same survey cited in Fortune reported commuters using public transit are more hesitant to return to work. Just 34 percent of public transit commuters said they were very likely to return to work when offices reopen, compared with 48 percent of non-transit commuters.
Every staff member has a unique situation and set of needs. Knowledge and awareness of those needs are essential to managing the return to work successfully.
Therefore, keep an open door so employees feel as though they can come to you with their concerns. Take the time to ensure staff feel supported and comfortable with what’s happening. And try to be proactive in your response to issues raised.
Undoubtedly, transitioning back into the office will be challenging for staff and managers alike. Use the tips we have identified here to start planning now for a successful return to work.
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