As states start to reopen during the pandemic, many companies are looking at sending their employees back to the office now or in the near future. But with 67% of remote employees saying they’re worried about returning to work too soon and 54% of workers wanting to work remotely most of the time after the pandemic, fear, unease and reluctance abound.
The issue of returning to the office is an increasingly complex one. As the situation continues to evolve day-to-day and week-to-week, there are a lot of ever-changing factors to consider. Many of those will be left to decision-makers among local and national governments, and with that guidance in mind, here are a few key things that business leaders should keep in mind as they head back to the office:
Take your Employees’ Pulse
At my company Donut, which is based in NYC, there will be a phased approach to returning to the office. Our office is currently closed — it’s mandatory work-from-home. Before we require anyone to come back to the office, we will have an “office optional” period where people can come in if they want, but if they don’t feel safe yet for personal reasons (commute, etc.), they can still work from home. Based on feedback we collected from our team, we’ve already decided, and communicated, that our earliest office reopen date is November 1, 2020. However, we won’t require anyone to return to the office until January 2021 at the earliest. These decisions were based on a tight feedback loop with the whole team. But we all know this situation changes so rapidly that we will continue to take the team’s pulse on when they feel safe to come back so we don’t reopen too early — there is no point in even opening in an “office optional” capacity if no one feels safe enough to come in yet.
If your company (or at least particular teams within it) has the luxury to do so, I’d recommend that you survey your employees, asking them when they’d feel comfortable returning to the office and what elements would they like to see put in place when they return. It undoubtedly won’t be possible to grant every employee’s requests, but as a business leader, you should try your best to hear your employees and create as safe, stable, and predictable an environment as you can. You may also uncover opportunities to make your business better and your culture stronger.
Preserve some of those Remote-first Policies that Work
Many companies that have announced a return to the office have said they’ll opt for the gradual, staggered approach. And while it’s nice in theory, it’ll likely be messier than it appears on paper.
In my experience speaking with Donut customers, it can be harder for some companies to work partially remote than fully remote. While there will be some immediate, obvious advantages like the anti-isolation benefits from seeing co-workers in person, there will likely be some unintended consequences for business leaders to navigate.
For example, when there are some people who are remote and some who are in-person in scenarios like group brainstorms and white-boarding sessions, the remote employees are frequently, and unintentionally treated as second-class citizens — it’s harder for them to jump in, talk and be heard. Over the past couple of months with whole offices and companies working remote, employees across the organization have shared this type of problem equally — they have had to deal with it in the same way and so they’ve embraced it together. But when your company is partially remote, it has the potential to cause widespread power-dynamic issues between those still working at home and those who are back in the office.
Another example is that on fully remote teams, unified documentation (in places like Slack and Google Docs) is second nature — it becomes ingrained in the company’s operating principles. But when you have some people coworking and some working remote, and shifting back and forth between those two, some of those standards can get lost and best practices can suffer.
When the time does come for employees to head back to the office, it will be important for companies to try to preserve some of those remote-first policies that make the current workflow successful, including rigorous documentation, one-person-per-camera on conference calls, and remote-friendly team activities and games.
Accept that Change is Inevitable and many Aspects of your Business may never be the same
There’s no doubt that how we work has been and will continue to be compromised in the current and future environments — here are a few examples of potential shifts we may see once employees start heading back to the office en masse:
Snacks will be prepackaged (forget about the bulk containers that people stick their hands in)
Masks and temperature-taking may be prevalent
There may be mandatory WFH policies after employees travel, whether for personal or business reasons
Long desks and open office plans are going to be seen as more of a disadvantage in the short term (6-18 months) as employees have to distance themselves
Companies will be forced to be more flexible on remote-work policies because employees might (rightfully) express concern around long commutes on public transport, bringing illness back to vulnerable roommates or family. (And there will inevitably be a delta between companies judging things to be safe and individual employee feelings.)
A lot of offices will realize that they work well remotely and will shift towards remote work being the default or at least much more permissible (especially now that the “remote work = less productive” fallacy has been disproven)
The reality is that things are hard right now. And they may get harder. But as companies continue to navigate today’s COVID-19 world toward a post-COVID one, one upside is that there will be opportunities to reflect on the before-COVID and during-COVID worlds and do some self-examination: What types of work activities were worse or compromised? What worked better? Were there certain kinds of projects that thrived and others that shriveled? Then the next question is: in an after-COVID world, how do we get the best of everything? Maybe certain roles are better suited (or simply better) to be remote roles. Maybe certain types of work are better in person while others are better in isolation. Maybe some peoples’ work-life balance was improved. Maybe others felt like all balance was lost. Once we learn and take stock of all of that, the question becomes, how does the workplace, and the workweek, need to adapt to realize all the possible gains from different modalities of working? Adjusting to these learnings will help companies not only adjust to the current stage of the new normal, but also the long haul that will set in once the pandemic truly subsides.