As some COVID-19 restrictions loosen and organizations continue to open up, leaders are faced with daunting questions such as, should we go back to some semblance of pre-COVID-19 work environments, shift to a 100% remote work model (like Facebook and others did), or some mixture of the two? And how? When (or if) businesses start to move employees back into their offices, executives walk the extremely thin tightrope of how to keep employees safe without totally restricting collaboration and productivity.
At Credera, we hosted a roundtable with executives from across our eight Strategic Forums to share experiences around this topic. Prior to the meeting, we gathered data from across the Forum groups to understand how organizations are planning to go back to work. Through this research and discussion, five key questions emerged as critical for leaders to consider as they work through creating their back-to-work policies.
1. How Do We Return to Work?
Returning to work should happen in phases, slowly, and with individual considerations. Organizations from the University of Tennessee to Credera’s holding company, Omnicom, have unveiled phased plans to go back to work. Organizations should also recognize that their plans are, as the Apple phased plan states, “fluid and may change.” Prepare employees with the warning that the organization may open up to 25% and then 50%, but then circumstances may change and the organization has to go back to a fully remote environment.
The goal of the caveats is not to promote additional uncertainty, but to be clear that everyone is unsure about what the next month will hold. By unveiling a plan with phases and leeway for change, executives are sharing their own vulnerability and being as honest as they can about what they don’t know.
One of the key points that emerged from the roundtable discussion was the emphasis on individual return to work plans. Each employee has their own unique set of circumstances that could motivate them to want to return to the office environment quickly or to need to take a longer time to re-enter. For example, organizations must consider the childcare burdens an employee may have, their personal health concerns, or even the commute needs of the employee. The main communication point is that leadership is focused on the health and safety of the employees.
2. How Do We Keep Employees Safe at Work?
Keeping employees safe at work was a key point of discussion during the roundtable. Executives shared that 95% of organizations are asking employees to wear facemasks and enforcing social distancing requirements during a time when facemasks were not a requirement from the local government.
Many were employing physical temperature checks but noted that the need for and feasibility of these checks varied based on the type of organization, ingress and egress complexities at the physical sites, and the types of jobs. Some have considered contact tracking applications to track employees in order to know who might have been exposed if an employee catches the virus.
Organizations are challenged with the administrative burden of tracking and maintaining these policies. Which department is in charge of checking temperatures and tracking the potential spread of the virus? Do employees that test positive use PTO or have additional sick leave? Who at the organization enforces social distancing and mask usage? All are important variables that must be considered in a return to work plan.
3. What Types of Emotional and Mental Support Are You Providing for Employees?
A recent Harvard Business Review article explains that in order for leaders to bring employees back to work safely, they should look to “the scientific study of how the brain responds to uncertainty.” Neuropsychologist Dr. Julia DiGangi explains that leaders must look beyond the physical safety that employees need. They must also focus on the emotional and mental safety that is sometimes even more precarious. She recommends focusing on leadership’s emotional vulnerability, increased flexibility for employees, and the right level of communication.
The majority of executives at the roundtable said they were offering employee assistance programs and free sessions with mental health professionals as resources. They were aligned with Dr. DiGangi’s recommendation of “emotional vulnerability” with employees from both their direct managers and leadership.
To further underscore the importance of caring for the emotional health of employees, a recent study by NORC at the University of Chicago shared that “just 14% of American adults say they’re very happy, down from 31% who said the same in 2018.” Providing resources for employees during yet another transition (returning to work) is critical to effectively care for them.
4. How Do We Communicate With Employees?
Executives shared that they were using many different ways to communicate new policies and procedures with employees. 95% said that they were using email, while 80% were also using company intranet to get the word out. Others were using in-store/office signage to communicate once employees were back on the premises. Lesser used mediums were teleconferences, executive meetings, and videos.
These variety of channels underscored the need to communicate multiple ways and often. The Wharton School interviewed Lori Ryerkerk, chairman, president, and CEO at Celanese, about communicating during the pandemic. She explains, “During this pandemic period, I’ve sent a note out to my organization twice a week. And we have pictures, blogs, and videos [among the many] ways to connect the community.” Finding the right channel and utilizing it in the best way possible is critical to maintaining connection and sharing information during the possibly tumultuous transition into the office. At Credera, our CEO and President Justin Bell has been doing weekly videos for the firm that share the firm’s financial performance, wins, and spotlights employees with transparency.
5. What Aren’t We Thinking Of?
This is the question that is keeping executives up at night. What detail, situation, or problem haven’t we thought of and solved? Sadly, there needs to be a recognition that no matter the scenario planning processes your organization goes through, there will be some eventuality you haven’t thought through and/or can’t control.
At Credera, we shared with the group that we are constantly tweaking our plans and holding them loosely. Communicating with employees that this is our plan currently, and it might change has helped to create a “we’re all in this together” kind of mantra. We know we don’t know, but we’re willing to move forward together. As we shared in a blog post at the beginning of the pandemic, making the right choices during this crisis will “increase your chances of strengthening your culture and coming out on the other side with a deeper connection to one another and the organization.”
As many of the executives shared, there were a few pleasant surprises during this time. Some saw an increase in virtual happy hours and deeper connections being formed. Others shared the unexpected result of increased productivity, innovation, and the decrease of red tape. We hope there are additional pleasant surprises as organizations transition to a new phase of the pandemic.