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HR Transformation

Are you ready to reopen the office?

HR leaders are facing an uphill battle of keeping employees safe while maintaining business continuity. Here’s what you should consider when it’s time to reopen the office again.

We’re several months into working from home, and some of us are seeing productivity levels at an all-time high. Others are simply struggling to get through the day. This is not the reality we wanted nor planned for, and making the situation even more difficult is that we don’t know what the future will bring. As an HR leader, that may put you in an unenviable position: figuring out if, when and how employees will return to the office. 

Some companies are embracing the remote workforce as a long-term strategy. Just last week, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook employees will be allowed to request a permanent change to work remotely. Twitter and Shopify also made similar announcements. The permanent shift to remote work makes sense for some organizations, but not for others. 

If reopening is part of your plan, here are the steps you should take to create a balanced transition back to the office: 

1. Determine criteria for who returns & when

The first step is to create a phased plan that will gradually increase the number of employees and activity level based on criteria you choose. For example, the first phase will include shifts of 50 employees who come into the office during certain days and time; meeting rooms and kitchens are closed, and temperature checks are required. The most important part of this plan is having the right employee data to make these decisions: anonymized medical history, office commute, dependent care, and overall population physical and mental health trends. Just as importantly, you need to continue collecting the data after your employees return to work. Over time, you can evaluate this data in conjunction with local government regulations, available medical treatment, and other CDC guidelines to move into additional phases. 

2. Rethink the office layout

It’s likely you’ll need to reconsider your office space entirely. That means increasing space between employees (CDC recommends 6 feet of distance) by either moving desks, having employees sit at every other desk, or adding cubicle walls. We also recommend moving desks farther from areas with a lot of foot traffic, like kitchens and hallways, and other common areas like meeting rooms should be closed or repurposed for individual offices. Some companies have gone so far as to install automatic doors or door handles that can be opened with an arm or elbow. We also recommend increasing the frequency of office cleaning.

3. Update your office policies

By now, you’ve probably changed your employee policies on remote work, but you also need to consider what your policies will be when the office re-opens. That includes everything from increased flexibility to work from home, limited in-person gatherings and a reduction in office deliveries. Similar to the phased approach, set limitations on what areas of the office can be used, and who is allowed in the office at what time. You should also consider reducing or eliminating shared or catered food altogether and swapping out kitchen utensils for ones that are disposable. Lastly, be clear about requiring employees to stay home if they feel sick (check CDC guidelines for COVID-19 exposure and treatment).

4. Boost resources for employees

Keep in mind that some employees will be reluctant to return to the office, regardless of new layouts and policies. Struggles with childcare, finances, physical and mental health will have some kind of impact on your employees, so you should be thinking about how to ease the transition back to office life. The bare minimum for many employers is providing PPE and cleaning supplies like hand sanitizer and masks at each desk. You should also consider mental health and financial counseling (virtual is ideal), subsidized parking or rideshare credits (for those afraid to take public transportation), and dependent care spending accounts or partnership with a childcare facility.

5. Communicate, communicate, communicate

Finally, you need to communicate expectations to your employees using every tool at your disposal: email, all-company meetings, manager 1:1s, in-office signage. Designate a separate website or portal that acts as a “source of truth” for all COVID-19 related information. Use two-way communication to update employees on policy changes and new health resources, or to collect information like health status, temperature checks or general questions. Communicate frequently, consistently and early enough so that your employees are prepared before changes go into effect. On top of that, ensure what you are communicating is personalized to each individual–such as location or job role–which is especially important for a large and dispersed workforce. 

These steps are a starting point for you as you navigate a path forward to reopening. Continue referring to credible sources like the CDC and the WHO, in addition to following local government guidelines, as circumstances may change. And remember that what works for some businesses may not work for yours, so be sure to keep a pulse on the needs of your employees so you can quickly adapt to the changes ahead.


The Return to Work: Considerations for Reopening the Office.

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