Moving Beyond Remote

Jan 20, 2021

3 steps to ensure a safe work transition

With the rollout of vaccines and dipping fresh infection rates, many organizations around the world are flagging off work from the workplace albeit cautiously. Given the unpredictability around the virus and its unsurprising emerging new strains, it’s all still a tricky terrain, and firms are testing hybrid models including keeping offices open on alternate days, rotating employees on a weekly basis, and introducing shifts. Multiple challenges plague the gradual return to work from office. For one, the experience will be completely altered in the wake of COVID 19 restrictions and subsequent binding social distancing requirements. Companies are mandated to keep a low attendance that is strictly need-based, have employees wearing masks at all times, redesign spaces to ensure physical distancing, and restrict movement in congested areas (for instance, elevator banks and pantries). As a result, even after the reopening, attitudes toward offices will probably continue to evolve.

The experience itself is having employees torn between choosing to continue to work from home and returning to the workplace after being homebound for months now. Many are still not ready to give up the satisfaction and productivity they discovered while working from their homes close to their families and loved ones, with minimal hours lost to commute, superfluous water-cooler conversations, avoidable meetings, and multitudinous social engagements one can never really bypass in an office space. On the other hand, there are those who are feeling the loss of the physical interaction and are of the view that corporate cultures and communities and those planned and unplanned moments of in-person collaboration are essential to one’s growth, mentorship, talent development, and overall mental and social wellbeing.

Taking into account both the enjoyment and the fatigue of the long-necessitated virtual working, many organizations are finally opening up their doors now to an array of mixed emotions and levels of happiness, unhappiness, productivity, and participation. Mounting economic turmoil and the inefficiencies related with remote work have necessitated the move to ‘business as usual’ though it still looks far from anything of the kind with the string of preventative measures tailing along, including social distancing between desks, regular sanitization and in some cases, only allowing those with personal vehicles to come to office.

Navigating this gradual change now will be one of the biggest business challenges of our time. The goal is to keep operations going while minimizing the risk to employees, and the primary responsibility of it all rests with the Management teams who need to tread this course from crisis to recovery with much forethought and careful heeding of expert advice.

Three primary steps when kickstarting ‘work from work’ yet again

Clearly, there is no one solution that can adequately cater to varying needs of different organizations. Leading firms will need to challenge the old, deep-rooted assumptions about how work should be done and what should be the role of the office in fulfilling that. Answers will shift too, from business to business, depending on the kind of talent they work with, what roles are most important to them, what degree of collaboration is inevitable for their excellence, and where their offices are located, among a bevy of other factors.

Even within an organization, the answer could significantly fluctuate across geographies, businesses, and functions, so the exercise of ascertaining what exactly will be needed to make this ‘work from work’ successful again must be a collective initiative across real estate, human resources, technology, and the business. Leaders must be ready to make hard choices and spearhead the effort across individual functions and businesses. Lasting change will also require cutting-edge change-management skills and constant fine-tuning based on how well the effort is fructifying with time.

Post a serious assessment of how on-ground operations are being reshaped with the slackening of restrictions in what is being seen as a serious and relieving nod to economic activity, our team of experts at Affine suggest the following few steps that businesses can mull over, in the wake of reopening their doors.

1. Prioritize safety of the workforce

The health and safety of the employees should precede any other obligation on the part of the management as the operations start swinging back to the old normal yet again. Teams will need to strictly adhere to the federal, state and local orders as the employees start streaming in back to the office for mission-critical work. The rules will of course vary with location of the offices, factories, distribution centers, and hence planning will need to be democratized for a range of scenarios. Companies might need resetting their protocols for deep cleaning and sanitization. In many cases, workspace layout might need changing, such as moving workstations to comply with social distancing norms, rejigging employee schedules to limit the number of people at a time, establishing guidelines for the use of face masks and gloves, mandating regular temperature checks, and revising leave policy in the wake of infection. Businesses might also leverage technology to facilitate contact tracing and communicate with employees who’ve been exposed to the virus and need to self-quarantine, in line with the protection of privacy and personal data of employees.

2. Determine who needs to be onsite and who can stay back home

Transitioning from remote work to full-time working from office requires the management to make important decisions about which employees really need to be present in-house or on the factory floor and which ones can still manage work while being away sheltered at home. This assessment is important to keep the onsite headcount low and the risk to employee health minimal. For instance, certain roles, such as sales or relationship management that might have earlier required face-to-face interaction could do perfectly fine with a little bit of tweaking given the evolving health guidelines and customer preferences, as well as the advisability of travel for non-essential purposes. Other roles might undeniably depend on onsite tools or technology and might require employees to trudge back to office sooner rather than later.

3. Practice empathy and effective communication with employees

These are unprecedented times. More than any tool, technology, or management decision, what can really help employees tide over the crisis is generous empathy and understanding on the part of the management. Not all employees will have the same needs and response to the pandemic.

So, the questions you really need to ask yourself are: How are your employees hanging in there? Have you devised a clear plan for their wellbeing? Are you providing them with enough resources to take care of their physical, mental, emotional, and financial health? What’s your strategy for their safety and security? Are you laterally focused on them as much as you are on supporting your customer’s needs?

In the midst of the pandemic-triggered chaos, employees are working with a novel sense of anxiety, fear, and loneliness amid isolation. As the leader, it is incumbent on you to stay prudent and make this work — for your employees, for your customers, and for you and your business, at large. A patchwork approach won’t do. You’ll need a solid and coherent coping strategy to empower your workforce and keep them healthy, happy, productive, and motivated when returning to office. Because their sliding optimism directly translates into the diminishing ability of your business to deliver relevant experiences that are able to meet customers’ expectations. Your brand image is entirely hinged on how well your employees are holding up right now. And what a prominent Gallup poll shows is not short of alarming. Only 54 percent of employees strongly agree to feeling well-prepared to do their work, under the shadow of COVID-19.

Adopting vital, actionable organizational practices to blossom trust, compassion, stability, and hope among your employees is paramount to business success. Cultivating empathy as an intrinsic part of your organization’s culture and showing flexibility to match specific employee needs is critical for the exact reasons.

Offer a greater leeway, keep work hours per day to a necessary minimum to spare them time for childcare or self-care, and offer leaves of absence as required. Showing added support, solidarity, and appreciation will make your employees feel that they are heard and cared for. It will give them a sense of security, otherwise stretched thin in this troubling time, that will re-establish their rapport with you and your organization. It can actually enable your people to kill at their jobs with enthusiasm and commitment equivalent, if not possibly equal, to the pre-pandemic normal, and eventually boost productivity in the long run.

These are testing times. But the board with meticulous planning and strategic decisions can aid a smooth transition from remote work to offices in a healthy and effective manner.  It’s on the leadership at the end of the day to make possible a well-planned return to offices with heightened safety, collaboration, and productivity, and talent growth.

Heena Kohli

Heena is a Marketing Specialist at Affine. When not busy deploying curiosity and insight to engage and inform our readers with the latest in AI and AE, she is probably onto devouring her next bedside book.

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