The world is beginning to open up again. Yes, we still pull on our face masks and keep 6 feet of distance between people that exist outside of our pods and households. We’re also, however, seeing vaccination rates increase while rates of positive cases mark a notable decline. We’re seeing capacity limits lift and we’re starting to enjoy things we have missed for the last year, like visiting with friends and family.
Our work lives are shifting, too. For some, our homes served double-duty as our workspaces even before lockdown measures shuttered office buildings. For many others, however, work-at-home was thrust upon them suddenly in March 2020 as the country shifted into lockdown mode in an attempt to control the spread of the pandemic. From Zoom meetings to establishing work-life balance when work and life co-exist in the same space, there was a learning curve. Whether you just found your groove for virtual meetings and time management or you found it early on, the idea that it’s nearing time to shift again to another dynamic may cause some mixed feelings.
Are We Ready?
Let’s be honest. “Are we ready?” has become a bit of a loaded question. The truth is there is not one right answer at this stage of the game. There are many factors to consider when it comes to transitioning your staff back into a traditional office setting. Beyond guidelines and recommendations that may vary between geographic locations, there’s also your physical space. Can you accommodate social distancing? There’s the nature of your business to consider too. Are there more benefits to being physically present in the same space at this time than any challenge or risk to welcoming back your team?
Recent polls of both employers and employees make one thing very clear: we shouldn’t plan to return to work the way it was in February 2020. Some things are going to be different. Maybe dress codes change. Maybe we embrace downtime and vacation time more than we used to. Even more importantly, we have learned that you’ve got employees that are content working at home and would happily select a job that allowed them to do so if the one you’re offering them does not.
The headline of a recent Newsweek article may have caught your attention. “Employees Balk at End to Remote Work: 'Going Back to the Office Is Stupid,’" it read. Of course, as is the case with most headlines, you need to keep reading to really get to the heart of the matter. Here’s the gist of it, about half of the employees surveyed (among several different research groups) would prefer to work remotely at least part of the week. Taking it one step further, some researchers found that a considerable number (47% according to Wakefield Research) would leave a job if they couldn’t work remotely at least part-time and 41% would be willing to take a lower salary if it meant they could work a hybrid schedule.
Be Patient and Be Flexible
Even as we anxiously yearn for a post-pandemic existence, our progress towards that goal comes with a measure of stress and anxiety for some. We’ve spent more than a year keeping people at a physical distance. We’ve shunned handshakes. We’ve given up our commutes. We’ve had the comfort of a home office that we customized to our specific needs (even if it was tucked behind a room divider in the corner of your living space). Moving back into the office means shifting back to our cubicles or offices. It means traffic or crowded public transportation. Even those that think they’re ready to jump back into this with both feet may find it more stressful than they realize. The first time someone inches a little too close to your 2020-2021 version of personal space, you may instinctively feel the need to step back. As a leader, recognize that a return to the office is more complex than setting a date. Be patient with your team as they adapt. Be prepared to offer support and flexibility.
Take Your Time
At the start of all this, the shift from office to home-office was swift. Your company may have been business as usual one day, and adapting to lockdown measures the next. Sure, we adjusted. We were grateful for the opportunity to continue working in a safe manner. The return, however, should not be as jarring. Communicate your plans ahead of time and give employees time to prepare. Some will need to revisit childcare or elder care options that haven’t been needed in the last year. Others will just need to begin to shift their mindset from this pandemic-fueled work-at-home status to whatever it is you’re planning next. Be clear about your timelines and what a return means. Will it be full-time, 5-days a week back? Will there be flexibility of a hybrid schedule? What steps are you taking to mitigate risk in the workplace?
Take the time to hear your employees out. Listen to their concerns. Listen to their wishes. Consider adapting where you can. Offer an informed, data-supported response about the things you can’t accommodate. Remember, though, a successful company grows on the efforts of happy, dedicated employees. Ultimately, leaders should look to balance company needs with employee needs. That begins with having an open line of communication with your team and seeking their input.