The day where people return to normal routines around work doesn’t seem as far off today as it did just a few weeks ago. As politicians itching to “re-open” the world look at ways to revive normalcy, companies now have to do the same as they consider operational needs and employee safety.
As the work environment shifts back toward what it was, what HR teams will find is that a new normal must now exist. Procedures that were once an afterthought, such as how the break room was cleaned, are now top of mind for everyone from entry level employees to the C-suite. Having the trust of your employees that the workplace is safe for them to return to is paramount to productivity.
And it isn’t just during a period of time when the virus subsides temporarily. The lasting impact of the coronavirus pandemic is that even after a vaccine is developed, it will alter the way people view the cleanliness of public spaces and the amenities at their disposal for things such as washing their hands or cleansing shared surfaces, be it a meeting room table or door handles.
There is a lot more to consider than simply reassuring everyone that the facilities are clean and that the company is doing the best it can to assure everyone’s health. There are cultural aspects of day-to-day business to address as well as implications for the organization’s reputation to consider. As an article from the Society for Human Resource Management notes, job candidates interviewed in the future will ask how the company handled this situation and “about the organization’s business continuity plans, pandemic-specific plans and other coronavirus-oriented practices.”
HR departments have a significant challenge ahead, but not one they should shy away from or feel overwhelmed by.
“I think this is the beginning of the most exciting period we’ve ever been part of,” Eric Torigian, Vice President and Assistant General Manager of Global HR for Akebono Brake Corporation USA told us on a recent episode of the HR Exchange Network podcast. “People are going to figure out how to pour their passion into it. The world has been getting ready for this for a while. We’ve been moving to an online world, a gig economy, toward remote work groups. In the next 20 or 30 years, this world is going to change a lot and people are going to come back to this time and ask ‘who were the people that made the difference?’ I think they’re going to look at HR people and say they’re the ones who led us through this.”
To help you manage current and future employee expectations, here are 5 tips for managing your teams’ return to the workplace.
- Get the Timing Right
The government telling everyone to get back to work isn’t likely to inspire faith in a lot of people given how things have been handled so far and the fact that social distancing has been as effective as it has. There are many people who would hesitate to return to a normal working environment in the near future and rushing them back early will likely undermine any good will accrued in facilitating remote work and establishing improved engagement practices during this period.
The first thing to consider is the situation in your local area. The number of new cases in the city and state will drive perception among your employees. Even if numbers are on the decline, a return may be seen as jumping the gun, particularly for large companies with bigger personnel footprints.
Once you decide to put things in motion, spend time discussing team needs with managers to determine which teams can remain remote and which ones are required to return. Then, assemble your operations staff and develop a plan to create safer physical spaces.
Finally, engage with your employees to find out how they’re feeling about a possible return to the office through surveys and town halls. Doing so and incorporating their concerns into your strategy will go a long way toward building the type of trust necessary to maintain a good reputation with your employees.
- Facilitate Social Distancing
Social distancing isn’t going anywhere any time soon. This means restaurants will likely have to re-think seating arrangements, cleanliness practices and personal protective equipment and testing for staff before they can re-open. That may mean limiting the scale of business and changing the way people flow through the every part of the building.
Offices will have to consider whether desks spaces are separated enough to comply with social distancing standards and retail operations will need to continue limiting the flow of people into their stores for the time being.
How companies react and commit to this new normal is going to determine how well they maintain morale and what the reaction of returning workers to physical locations will be. For new hires, seeing a commitment to social distancing will reassure them that they’ve joined an organization which has their health and wellbeing top of mind.
- Culture of Cleanliness
There is always a lot of talk about culture in HR, and in the wake of this pandemic, that is likely going to have to change as well. But as Torigian noted in our discussion, teaching people how to be responsible around each other and avoid the spread of the virus is a challenge for both organizations and society as a whole.
“That’s not just something that’s good for business, it’s something that is going to be required in the new world,” Torigian said. “We’ll learn how to do it and we’ll get really good at it.”
This means changing social norms. For example, banning handshakes in favor of greeting techniques that respect personal space and safety.
Beyond that, HR teams have to consider what mechanisms are in place to ensure cleanliness, such as handwashing stations and requirements for different roles. Which employees require personal protective equipment, for example, is a key consideration.
Additionally, using company resources to ensure safety will help employees feel the organization is doing everything in its power to prioritize their health and therefore, will be more dedicated to doing their part. Care packages with cleansing wipes, hand sanitizer, gloves, tissues and other items they can use to stay safe is one small act that could go a long way toward inspiring confidence.
- Career Transitions
Businesses are bound to operate differently from here on out and with that comes some new realities. People who have traditionally been in office may no longer be required to be there and some, unfortunately, will not be required at all. That, however, does not mean those people must be cut loose.
Now is an ideal time for companies to engage in career mapping exercises to better understand the capabilities and interests of their employees. There is already talk of mass efforts by some in government to retrain much of the workforce for positions that can be done remotely and for careers that offer different prospects going forward than what they’ve experienced in the past, but that is something that may be better led by HR professionals than government programs.
- Invest in Employee Wellness
It may seem an invasion of privacy at first, but given the implications for your staff as a whole, monitoring on-site employees’ health and wellness is a matter of public safety. Some public health experts say that office buildings and public spaces such as bars and restaurants cannot be re-opened until there are testing methods that can be done quickly and accurately to determine if someone is carrying the virus.
We’re likely a ways off from that being a possibility for many businesses, but others are already putting measures in place to conduct temperature checks at entrances and getting creative as they find solutions for social distancing buzzers and one way routes through shared spaces so that people don’t cross paths or come face-to-face with one another.
As an article from Bloomberg noted recently: “The way we work, shop, travel and eat in 2020 – and probably beyond – is being plotted out in boardrooms around the world.”
Meanwhile, office spaces may have to be redesigned, moving away from the open floor plans that have been trending for several years and toward cubicles with high walls so that employees have more isolated spaces.
To get ahead of these issues, now is the time for organizations to begin discussing what their path forward is and consider how much risk they are willing to take on in bringing employees back to work. What improvements need to be made to sanitation procedures, ventilation systems and the structure of the workplace are all things that need to be evaluated.