COVID-19 represents a challenge to businesses on so many levels. As societies come to grips with the pandemic and restrictions are slowly lifted, one of the next challenges to await some of us is the return to the workplace.
Over the last several weeks or months, the vast majority of employees have been asked to take social distance and work from home. The safety of the workforce is the primary concern of any business leader. So as businesses are asking themselves just how they can start to bring employees back to the office in a safe and prudent way, I’d like to share a few of the steps which are being taken by many organisations.
Remote Work Remains Relevant
For many years, businesses have been worrying about the productivity of remote workers. COVID-19 accelerated digital transformation and over the last several weeks we have learned just how productive our teams can be while working remotely.
Being technology business many organisations have always been very WFH friendly. So one area in which I believe that we will see a lasting impact on the way we work post-COVID-19 is remote work.
While there is no compression algorithm for experience, this period is serving to teach businesses that employees can not only function, but thrive working remotely. In a recent Gartner survey of 317 CFOs, nearly a quarter of respondents said they will move at least 20 percent of their on-site employees to permanent remote positions in an effort to achieve the cost savings of a remote workforce.
And more businesses may follow the lead of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who announced that employees at his companies, including Twitter and Square, will be able to work remotely forever. Not every business can work remotely, but those that can are likely to do so in larger percentages moving forward.
With technologies like Slack, Zoom, Monday.com, and many other cloud-based collaboration tools, teams can be as productive as they are in the office, if not more so. One important point to remember is that it’s not the tools that make employees productive, it’s the company values, the employee engagement, and the clarity of the leadership that drive productivity.
The downside of more remote working will likely be on the human side, but I believe that this will be more of a perceived downside than a real one. While there will be less opportunity for a coffee with a colleague, teams will have to get creative about how they keep up the personal side of collaboration.
We have already seen such creativity happening organically over the last weeks with virtual lunches and virtual happy hours bringing teams together during this period of enforced distance.
Office Guidelines After the Pandemic
When it comes to the physical workplace, there are some important questions to answer. The most important one for me is how do we offer our employees a safe, healthy environment in which to connect with co-workers and be productive?
First things first, we will make sure that face masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer are readily available in the office. We are producing face masks, which we feel will not only keep our employees safe but they will be proud to wear. There will also be hand sanitizer dispensers available in every reception, collaboration space, and meeting room, and employees will be encouraged to use them before interacting with each other.
We will also make sure we make space to allow for social distance. We plan to adjust our office environment to create new areas for informal meetings, which would normally have taken place over a coffee in the cafe area or on one of our sofas.
Now we plan to space out informal seating so people can meet together a safe distance apart. In conference rooms, we will remove some chairs so that they can never get to full capacity and people can leave a safe distance between themselves and their neighbor.
When it comes to the return to the office, we plan to create rules of engagement at the company level and at the team level. These rules will be around the time employees plan to spend in the office, their reasons to come in, and finally the social rules of being in the office.
We will allow each team to decide how they would like to work together towards their respective goals. Some teams need to meet weekly, others need to catch up on a daily basis. No one size fits all.
What is going to be important is that we can plan office time based on team needs and in alignment with the local regulations. I believe that these changes will represent the biggest mind shift for employees, as once they reenter the workplace they will very quickly go back to old habits. It will be down to team leaders and managers to help their teams adapt to the new normal with more prudent workplace behaviors.
Socializing While Social Distancing
When it comes to social time in the office, many of the traditional office perks we have been offering employees will also need to change post-COVID. While get-togethers will need to change for the time being, they are still a very important part of who we are as a company.
Something our teams always looked forward to was the Friday Breakfast, which is an important opportunity for all employees at our headquarters to take some time to grab something to eat with their co-workers and catch up. Moving forward, we don’t want to remove such important opportunities to build relationships, but we know we will need to rethink them.
As a leadership team we are investigating ways in which we can work with local restaurants to replace the open buffet format and replace it with smaller snack boxes that would be delivered more frequently over the course of the week so that employees who are in the office can enjoy the sociability across our large office space. We also see this concept as a way to help the restaurants in our community who have suffered during the crisis.
Finally, a key topic is business travel. We are a global business with employees all over the world, from New York to Singapore, London to Sao Paulo. In the past, travel was commonplace as a way to keep physically close to our customers and to our co-workers.
While I don’t believe business travel will be a thing of the past, as in-person meetings are so very important, for the time being we will be encouraging our teams to really ask themselves if a trip is business critical, or if it can be handled via video conference.
Navigating the return to the office after the pandemic will be a learning process for all of us and I believe we need to view it as more of a transition than a switch to a new normal. Leaders will need to make sure they are enabling real two-way communication with employees, encouraging them to share any questions they have or challenges they face as a result of changes to the workplace.
If leaders are able to show employees the steps they are taking to keep them safe and secure, while enabling them to be productive, the COVID-19 crisis may end up being an opportunity to not only strengthen the corporate culture, but to increase employee engagement and boost productivity in the long run.