The idea of returning to the office might seem exciting for some, but it might be nerve-racking for others. Everyone's COVID experience was different, and some might take time to reacclimate to the new office norms. Leaders should do everything in their power to make this transition welcoming while still being aware of the trying times some employees had to face and what they may have had to overcome during this last year.
If fully returning to the office isn't something your company plans to do, but you are considering a hybrid option, be sure to do it carefully. Developing a hybrid workforce might sound easy, but if it is done carelessly or without explicit, thoughtful consideration, it has the potential to strain work relationships, interfere with effective collaboration, and ultimately impact company performance.
It's going to take more than company-branded masks, tubs of sanitizer, and Clorox wipes for people to feel safe and efficient back at work, so take a look at the following nine tips on how you can successfully move forward into this new chapter with your team.
1. Make time for socially distanced events so employees can catch up.
Some individuals may have spent massive amounts of time alone and want the company of others to feel normal again. Allow non-work-related conversations so people can reconnect. Create various collaborative spaces outdoors, if possible, where people can work together and feel safe doing so.
2. Continue to be vigilant about cleanliness and respecting space.
Ask for permission to join someone in a smaller office, or suggest a meeting while walking instead. The reality that some have lost loved ones and may still be apprehensive when in group settings, is real, and should be handled respectfully and responsibly.
3. Some team members may not feel comfortable coming back right away.
Make it ok to stay home if they feel more comfortable doing so, but address office culture around this. No one who has decided to stay home should feel guilty for doing so.
4. Dial-in your empathy and flexibility skills as a leader before jumping back into your office.
The team that you worked with in January 2020 may look much different when they return. Remote working days may have looked much different from one employee to the next, so getting everyone back in the office groove will take time.
5. Keep communication at the top of your list.
Ask returning employees if their needs changed since they were last in the office and what adjustments could be made to meet their current workflow habits and schedules. Also, keep lines of communication open for discussing emotional needs as well.
6. Provide resources for mental, physical, and financial assistance.
Also, keep your team up to date on COVID treatment progress and vaccination opportunities. Ensuring that your team feels taken care of will enable them to focus more easily on work tasks and show them that you care about their wellbeing. Trust and safety are what people need right now.
7. If you are going with a hybrid setup, create a culture that puts everyone on an even playing field.
Instead of allowing certain people to come into the office five days a week, schedule everyone from the CEO down to 2-3 days of in-office time and two or three days working from home. Split scheduling is effective in a few different ways. 1. it helps dissipate the "us vs. them" mentality between remote and in-office workers. 2. it creates project and promotion opportunities for all employees and not just the ones that are physically in the office more often, and 3. it ensures that everyone has equal access to office resources.
8. Celebrate the work from home days.
They're a good thing! Allow employees to adjust their schedules and achieve work-life balance in their own space and in their own time, which ultimately allows team members to return to the office rejuvenated and curious. Ready to engage vs. when they see the same people five days in a row from morning until evening. Not to mention the positive impact on the environment when half as many people are commuting to work! Win-win!
9. Watch your language.
Try not to use terms like "remote team" or the "work from home crew," etc. If you genuinely want to make your hybrid workforce WORK, then make it standard to refer to everyone as a team member without distinguishing where they are located. Now is the time for teams to come together and collaborate again. Dividing them by terms and location only adds to the worry that one "team" is better or favored over the other, and if there is any sense that things are not equal across all teams, motivation decreases.
Research has shown that two-thirds of people leaders struggle with employee morale, and more than one-third are dropping the ball in maintaining company culture. Take this opportunity to establish a company culture that works for everyone and nurtures collaboration no matter what your new workspace looks like.
Remember that walking through that office door for the first time will feel very different from one person to the next, so be sensitive to that. Go into this new chapter with eyes and ears open. Encourage your team to support each other and work together to make sure the post COVID office culture you build is one you can all be proud of.