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Critical Considerations for A Safe Return to The Office

            Amidst the pandemic, the world has had to cope with drastic changes in work related policies. A few organizations have even experienced a permanent move towards work from home (WFH) practices. While many are satisfied with the change for different reasons, others can’t seem to wait to get back to the way that work used to be. At this time, employers have to contend to the short and long-term ramifications of new working conditions and its impacts to productivity, communication, culture, cybersecurity and several other issues that have emerged as a result.

            As considerations are made, organizations will need to take a holistic approach to ensure a successful transition to a new normal. Below are some of the key areas that leadership has to work with as it builds and implements a return to the office plan.

Legal & Regulatory Compliance

            There have been multiple public authorities at the federal, state/ provincial and municipal levels that have enacted policies to curb the spread of the pandemic and support all pillars of society. As usual, it falls onto the laps of leadership to ensure that their organization remains in compliance with said laws.

            As the legal environment changes internationally and nationally, organizations have to consider the legal and financial implications of adopting and complying to new policies. Further deliberation regarding the safety of the workforce need to be taken into account. At this time, companies need to be proactive by revisiting internal policies such as Health and Safety policies, WFH policies, Code of Conduct policies, and Cybersecurity policies. As such, it is essential that senior executives work in tandem with officers on the ground to understand the current atmosphere of their organization, its impact on policies and expectations, as well as ensure that enacted policies reach their desired outcomes.

Hand Washing

Sanitary and Hygiene Practices

            In an office environment, organizations have to consider how and whether to shoulder the costs of PPE supplies and training for its employees and customers. If that is not an option, leaders have to contend with personally owned PPE which may be inadequate or non-existent. This may pose unintended consequences that may challenge return to the office efforts and increase customer and employee exposure, potentially leading to disruptions in operations. (‘Way Too Late’: Inside Amazon’s Biggest Outbreak, NY Times).

            Good personal hygiene such as hand washing and social distancing remains a major part of the fight against COVID-19. To ensure good office practices and training, well positioned pamphlets, workshops, adequate infrastructure, supporting policies, and a culture of cleanliness are just a few of the major drivers of change.

            Office cleanliness will remain a priority to both the organization and employees. Even if it is believed that employees are following sanitary and hygiene practices, the organization will likely need to increase the rate of commercial cleaning services throughout its establishment.

            In a pandemic environment, sanitary and hygiene practices are not isolated factors that are bound to stay within the secrecy of a company. For example, a single meat packing plant in Germany is believed to be behind over 1,000 confirmed cases. Even in optimal conditions, outbreaks of this nature can have a direct impact on society, economic recovery, organizational operations and even raise risks to brand value.

Shared Space and Common Area Policies

            Prior to the pandemic, many organizations have moved their offices to shared work spaces and common areas within offices such as water coolers, cafeteria or entertainment rooms, were seen as standard infrastructure. Nowadays, there are concerns that these areas will often involve interactions in close proximity, which can further exacerbate pandemic related risks.

            To lower said risks, organizations need to consider implementing physical distancing and hygiene measures and protocols. At this time, many governmental bodies have stipulated guidelines that can be used to support organizational procedures and help organizations navigate through the reopening of their workplace. The State of California, New York City, and the City of Toronto are just a few examples of such guidelines being extended to organizations. It is important to follow local guidelines, but whenever possible, borrow additional innovative takes from other jurisdictions.

Back to the Office Employee Prioritization

            Teams or roles that demand a higher amount of physical interaction and can’t perform their duties well via online means should be considered as front-runners of back to the office policies. Simultaneously, leaders should critically assess if individuals whose roles are well suited for remote working, should only make the return to the office at the later phase of the pandemic reopening. Such efforts can help reduce health risks to employees and customers.

            The IT department for example, may return back to the office on a rotational basis or in batches (team by team). Employees involved in the preparation and maintenance of physical technology (e.g. servers and hardware support) are likely to be prioritized while most of the software cast may be held back to later phases since their work may be accomplished remotely.

            As leadership determines how to prioritize the return to the office, there are a few questions that should always be asked:

  • Are there feasible technological or procedural options that can be taken to limit X role’s exposure? If so, would their work be impacted and how?
  • How big of a priority would it be to bring certain individuals back to the office under these circumstances?
  • Would the solution help potential future disruptions such as a 2nd COVID-19 wave?”

Meeting Room Protocols

            Meeting rooms can follow similar protocols stipulated to shared spaces and common areas, given the limited square footage that such spaces traditionally have which can make it harder to enforce distancing rules and lead to an increased risk of transmission. In said cases, organizations may benefit from setting a threshold on the number of employees permitted per meeting and the distances that are expected. Office administrators may want to set delimitators such as a sign to stipulate social distancing and remove excess chairs to help set the precedent. Reminder mechanisms such as pamphlets to clean spaces before and once they have been used can also beneficial.

Rotational Work Schedules

            To diminish contact, some organizations may benefit from building rotational work schedules where a department or group alternates every couple of weeks. This can help set better social distancing in offices that do not have the capacity to handle prior numbers of employees and clients. Some organizations have already started a two week in office and off office rotation, in which the workforce is divided into 2 groups (or more) which rotate the office space – as seen in the case of Webster City, Iowa.

            It also allows teams to regain some of the interactions and experience that the office can provide while still having work from home flexibility. Organizations may find this to be the right mix of home comfort and office experience. Once COVID-19 related issues subside, organizations may find further operational efficiency in having a mixed policy, allowing it to move into smaller offices with lower costs.

Office Layouts

            Currently, most offices are not set-up to accommodate for COVID-19 related concerns such as social distancing. As organization decide when and who may return to the office, considerations over closed workspace, socially distanced offices, signs, contactless technology can be major drivers in helping leaders implement an employee first and health-driven culture.

Exception Handling

            The pandemic has shown that family and individuals can be impacted differently. To ensure a smooth transition back to the office, organizations may benefit from having structure, policies and procedures to handle exceptions. For instance, employees with children or elderly parents at home may have a difficult time procuring the necessary resources to support their needs. At times like these, the organization may benefit from giving the employee an extended work from home period where viable.

            Clients may also prefer to have the option to attend meetings and consultations online. There is a fine balance between organizational, employee, and customer needs. Considerations over the complexity of exception handling should also be taken into account. Critical assessment of said implications and needs can help improve employee and customer satisfaction in the short run while also providing much needed experience on how to handle operational challenges that are bound to occur (crisis handling).

Clear, Open and Continuous Communication

            In periods with trials and tribulations, society looks for leaders to guide them through rough patches. For an organization, employees and customers are actively looking for cues to understand its trajectory and how it will impact them.

            At this time, discrepancies in individual habits in relation to work from home and back to office may be front-center in a manager’s mind. Whether it is employee tardiness, commute, productivity, organizational networks and others, readjustment will take time and requires guidance. For that to happen, leaders will need to maintain a transparent, open and continuous communication to help clarify and facilitate solutions for issues that arise.

Transitional Period

            Transitional periods can be challenging to many and will often lead to resistances. To ensure a smooth transition back to the office, it is important to note the origins of said challenges. At its base, resistance will often involve at least one of the following:

1) An uncomfortable level of ambiguity;

2) The potential for surprises;

3) A sense of ‘lack of control’;

4) Nostalgia or a sense that things are different;

5) A trigger reminder of ‘the bad’ or ‘the good’ experiences, and;

6) A discrepancy in expectation and reality for the self and others.

            To break through these challenges in the transitional period, leaders have to identify what is likely to pose resistance, plan for its eventuality and enact change. Most often, clear communication can alleviate the intensity in which resistance is brought about. It is also important to note that as a leader, there are areas where individuals will have to face their own challenges. Part of leading is understanding when to act and when to let others evolve through their challenges.

Risk Management: Complacency Management and 2nd Wave Planning

            As time passes, the sense of pandemic threat can dissipate, which can potentially lead to changes in habits that have helped manage and alleviate the matter. When that happens in a societal environment that has yet to resolve the issue, a second, third and fourth wave can happen. To lower the risk while still giving the flexibility for change, organizations can benefit from building a robust health centric culture coupled with a routine threat assessment towards the pandemic macro and micro factors.

            In the same way that the first wave of COVID-19 caught many societies and organizations by surprise, a second or third wave is still on the radar. For example, on June 2020, China saw an upsurge in cases, which led the government to enact lockdowns in some regions. To ensure that the organization faces limited disruption, leadership and emergency response task forces should actively monitor conditions and build contingency plans.

Conclusion

            A return to office will require a holistic approach that takes into account societal, customer and employees’ needs and behaviour. It involves the analyses of prior experiences, the current environment and a vision of what the future may hold. To ensure success, leaders will need to build a robust back to work plan that takes into account many of the points raised in this article. Continuous reassessment of policies, procedures and operations are essential to ensure it conforms with scientific, regulatory and societal expectations while continuing to provide stakeholder value.

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