It seems near impossible to imagine a life past the pandemic, but as more vaccines become available and widespread immunity increases, companies and employers need to prepare to safely and effectively bring employees back to the office. While the landscape of the workplace has drastically changed and some will continue to work remotely for the foreseeable future, many will choose to come back to the office partially or full time. There are a number of strategies that workplaces can implement to ensure that their employees feel supported if and when they return to the office.
1. Create a Timeline to Return
The shift between home and office is going to be a slow one. As an employer, you’ll need to anticipate that it will take your employees at least a few weeks to ensure that their affairs are in order. Stay transparent with your employees about the timeframe in which they can expect to return to the office. Give them a projected date as soon as possible, even if it is subject to change. If they know that a return to the office is imminent, people can begin to make plans for things like childcare and pet sitting. These arrangements can sometimes take weeks to secure. Some may even need to figure out their method of transportation once again.
When deciding when and how to return, you might consider creating a hybrid schedule. This could mean that certain teams come in on two days out of the week, while other teams come in on the opposite two days, and you use a day in between as a completely virtual day. Or it could mean that everyone is in on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and Tuesday and Thursday are your virtual days. Whatever you choose to establish as your new schedule, make sure it is consistent and communicated to your employees in advance.
Employees will also need time to adjust the routines that they’ve developed while staying home. Some of the luxuries of working from home, like waking up late, midday workouts, and cooking every meal have become normal parts of the day. People will have to return to waking up with time for the commute and preparing meals in advance. It may be helpful to suggest to employees that they should get back into these habits prior to returning to the office, this way the change does not feel so drastic. It might even be helpful for employees to start using a habit tracker to make the transition easier and more successful.
2. Provide a Clean Workspace
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the cleanliness of the office space to the forefront of everyone’s mind. One of the top priorities as an employer should be to make sure your employees are not only comfortable in their work environment, but to make sure they stay healthy. Keeping the physical office space disinfected shows your employees that their safety is a major concern.
Focus on keeping your high-touch surfaces clean to abate the spread of germs. High-touch surfaces are exactly what the term would imply; the surfaces that are touched by the most people multiple times a day. These can include doorknobs, light switches, hand scanners, faucets, kitchen and bathroom fixtures. Consider setting a reminder in the morning, midday, and evening to go around to each area to sanitize. You can also designate a specific one or two people to be in charge of turning on lights and locking and unlocking doors.
Consider creating task forces assigned to sanitizing certain areas. Having specific team assignments will safeguard any areas from being overlooked, and will assure the frequency with which each area is being cleaned. You can also assign someone, perhaps on a rotating schedule to make sure you have things like hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and paper towels in stock. When it is time to restock, they can place an order to have the cleaning supplies delivered to your office. By keeping employees engaged in the process, they can feel better about their office space knowing that it is cleaned to their own standards.
Another way to keep the office cleaner and your employees safer is to eliminate the need for shared items. For example, each employee that requires a phone should have an individual phone or a business number that they can use on their own phone. You can also do things like giving every employee their own box of pens, and making sure that you have enough keyboards and mice that they won’t need to share. Your employees will feel better about coming into work if what they are using is their own and they don’t have to worry about the cleanliness of others.
3. Encourage Sick-leave and Doctor’s Visits
A key component to supporting the well-being of your employees is to encourage them to take charge of their health. Attending work while feeling ill is no longer an option. Whether it be a mild cold or something more serious, it isn’t worth coming into the office and potentially spreading an illness to someone else. Not only do you want to try to create an environment where your employees feel confident that they won’t get sick at work, but healthy employees will ensure that you don’t lose any productivity due to multiple absences.
Let your staff know that it is acceptable and even encouraged to stay home while ill. As many have learned, viral illnesses can have a range of symptoms and severity. Consider creating a list of concerning symptoms for your employees to reference so that they can easily make the decision of whether or not to stay home. If you’ve been working remotely for a while, they might be able to complete their duties from home if they’re feeling up to it. If they are especially unwell, encourage your employees to take time to rest so that they might recover faster.
You should also be supportive of your employees making time to find and utilize healthcare. Simple communication to remind them to stay up-to-date on their medical treatments, checkups, vaccines, and general health can lead to an overall healthier and more productive staff. Visiting a doctor for a severe or continuing illness should be encouraged.
4. Support Mental Wellness Initiatives
There is a chain reaction effect that comes from empowering employees to improve or maintain their mental wellbeing. If people are in a healthy headspace, they are more likely to put effort into taking care of other areas of their life, especially their careers. Employees want to feel excited about coming into work, and you can help them do so by letting them know that their mental health is a priority to the company. In fact, one study by TELUS International showed that 80% of the employees surveyed would quit their job if they found another position at a company that placed a higher value on their mental health.
First and foremost, being transparent about how the mental wellness of your staff is valued will let your employees know that this is a top concern to the company. You can also give your employees a boost by having your HR department, managers, or directors do personal check-ins to make sure that the work environment is not contributing to a decline in someone’s mental state. By having these personal conversations, you can create individual action plans to lower overall stress and relieve certain pain points.
You can also implement weekly or monthly activities that might improve personal wellness. Activities such as a virtual yoga class or sharing a healthy recipe can work to boost morale among employees and get them to take an active role in their health. Even encouraging something like scheduling a fifteen-minute coffee break with a coworker can improve the feelings of connectedness and interaction that working remotely has stripped away.
The transition between working from home and returning to the office will undoubtedly be tricky for companies to navigate. Employers have to consider the health and safety of employees, new in-office logistic plans, and the mental and physical adjustments that workers will need to make over time. People have changed their daily workflows and family situations to accommodate remote work, so employers will need to be understanding as workers readjust to life in the workplace. If managed correctly and with care, together we can secure a smooth return back to work.