The Covid-19 pandemic posed the biggest business challenge of the modern era. But when the epidemic itself is over, the impact on companies is by no means over.
The return to the workplace presents a host of issues that organizations have never faced. While working from home became a common, shared experience, as the crisis deepened and everyone grappled with remote communication, the resumption of work in a brick-and-mortar environment will not be the same for all.
A survey of human-resources leaders and return-to-workplace decision-makers conducted by an independent media organization, Rest Work, concluded that the transition is “likely to be unpredictable and potentially chaotic.”
A mere 33% of respondents said their organization was prepared and had the necessary resources to successfully navigate a return to work. The No. 1 concern, expressed by 41%, was the provision of support and training to lead managers through the “challenges of flexible, hybrid workplaces.”
Here are four ways leaders can handle the transition.
If you haven’t already done so, your organization needs a structured process that addresses the way business is conducted from multiple perspectives. This entails putting together a project committee consisting of management representatives from all departments. You can’t simply have employees show up on the doorstep as if 2020 (and 2021) never happened. The world of work has changed forever.
No matter the status of the pandemic, many workers will have concerns about their health like never before. It’s vital therefore to be able to assure employees that their company cares about their safety and well-being. This ranges from the social distancing of workspaces, adapting work schedules to reduce the number of people on-site at any given time and sanitizing the office space.
The effect of the disease impacts mental health as much as physical health, and psychologist Susan Albers-Bowling says that returning to work can trigger preexisting conditions including depression, anxiety and PTSD.
Employees were called upon to demonstrate flexibility during the pandemic, but the real test in flexibility lies ahead. This requires establishing staggered start and finish times, and hybrid office-home work weeks. Now that the remote work genie is out of the bottle many workers have come to relish the extra hours in their day from the elimination of a mind-numbing commute. In fact, more than a quarter of respondents to a McKinsey & Company survey
reported that they would consider switching employers if their organization returned to fully on-site work.
The uncertainty of being left in the dark breeds speculation and fear. Leaders need to deliver frequent updates openly and honestly. Employees need to buy into changing developments, and the only way to get them to do it is by letting them know what’s going on. Communication also should be a two-way street, with leaders giving employees who may be experiencing “reentry anxiety” ample opportunity to express their personal difficulties in the back-to-the-office environment.
The return to the workplace is not one big happy party. Of course, colleagues will be delighted to get together in-person and engage in real — not virtual — water cooler chatter. But it’s not the way that it was and probably never will be. Leaders need to fully understand the complexities of the transition and take proactive steps to make it as smooth as possible.