Put your People First: An Open Letter to CEOs

To the CEOs, decision makers, and leaders of organizations,

 Your job has forever changed.

As governments around the world reopen their economies, business leaders have officially entered a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic: planning for a safe and healthy workplace re-entry while ensuring the overall financial health of the business. It’s important to remember during these uncertain times when we’re making heavy and critical decisions faster than ever before, that behind every successful CEO and business is a strong and talented team. The CEOs who put their people first will make the largest impact on the overall success of the companies they’re leading.

Read More: TecHRseries Interview with Nancy Knowlton, CEO at Nureva

Here are five steps I’m taking to prioritize our team first, as we push into and through this coming new normal.

1- Consider the stress and emotions your employees might be experiencing

For some employees, returning to the workplace marks a time of much-needed hope and optimism. For others, the mere thought creates a serious source of anxiety and fear of virus exposure. These mixed emotions are even further compounded with the increased civil unrest and the much overdue pursuit for equality.

Pre-COVID, I personally never spent much time thinking about how my team was physically feeling, how many sick employees we might have in a given week, or what toll different events had on their mental health. This is not to say their health and wellbeing wasn’t important to me before. However, it was not something I would receive weekly, let alone daily, reports on as I do today. Now, it’s not only our responsibility as the CEO to ensure a safe and healthy workplace for our team, we must also take the time to consider the stress and emotions our employees might be experiencing, understand how they are feeling about coming back to work, and position them for success so they can be as productive as possible. For us, this has included:

  • Making sure our team is aware of the benefits they have, like access to telehealth so they don’t need to get in the car and go to a doctor’s office. And mental health benefits so they can talk to a professional therapist in regard to the stress and loneliness that so many of us are newly grappling with.
  • Communicating with our employees the actions we’re taking toward strengthening diversity, equality, and inclusion within our company and community. This has involved explaining why now and what our commitment looks like.
  • Sending out regular employee sentiment surveys to gauge who is comfortable and able to return to the workplace.
  • Frequent and regularly scheduled outreach to employees. These take shape in multiple formats, like monthly video meetings open to the whole company as well as regular email updates that create transparency and clarity.

2- Get used to the only constant being change and offer flexible work arrangements

Like most companies amid the coronavirus pandemic and business closures, a majority of our team quickly transitioned to working from home. During this time, many employees have voiced they’d prefer to continue working from home because they’re finding they’re able to work more productively. Some working parents may want to return, but can’t due to school closures and lack of childcare. Others are afraid they’ll be exposed to the virus within the workplace. We’re also seeing many employees look forward to returning to the workplace, just as they did before the crisis. Point is, every single employee has a different situation and their own unique comfort levels in going back to the workplace.

If you can, offer flexible work options throughout 2020 and perhaps even 2021. This will reinforce trust and confidence among your team, as well as boost morale, loyalty and engagement. Flexible work arrangements also help facility managers reduce congestion as well as rotate available floors, zones, or workstations to allow for proper cleaning between uses.

For our initial office reopening in Raleigh, North Carolina, we are first determining the ratio of employees who can successfully work remotely and employees who can (and want to) return to the workplace so we can effectively plan out our workspace. Then, we ran through three work schedule scenarios, including permanent assigned desks, flexible desk options for employees who’d rotate in-office days, and something in between where some would be permanently assigned desks in the office while the others worked from home permanently.

We landed on a mix of reserved and assigned space. Assigning space to individuals whose role and associated health risks (both to themselves and those in their home) made them ideal for return. Others, whose roles and associated health risks are considered occasional attendees, have the ability to reserve space. The option to reserve is limited to a select group of employees and validated through software.

Read More: Still Here & Still Remote: Supporting Your People in a COVID-19 World

3- Convert the traditional workplace into primarily a “we space”

Historically, offices have been best used for their collaborative environment benefits. If you think about why employees are going to the office, it’s because they want to interact with their coworkers or find it more productive to collaborate on projects. Traditionally, workplaces included a mix of “me spaces” and “we spaces.” “Me spaces” being in-office workspaces that provided areas for deep focus, like a personal desk or a private office. “We spaces” being areas for in-person team interaction and collaboration, like conference rooms.

In a COVID world, consider moving almost all “me spaces” into home offices and make the company’s office primarily for “we space” use. Bringing people together in the office for meetings that are best done in-person, like creative brainstorms, kicking off new projects or simply for an opportunity to bond as a team, are a few examples for how we plan to use our offices. This might mean one or two in-office days for certain meetings or activities best done face to face, and then having the team work from home the rest of the week to execute.


4- Redesign the in-office workplace for improved indoor environmental conditions, health and safety

In addition to spacing desks six feet apart, meeting new occupancy requirements, requiring masks in certain shared areas, and more, the benefits of healthier workplaces have always spoken for themselves: increased productivity, positive impacts on cognitive function, overall better quality outcomes, and most timely – reduced chances of becoming sick while at the workplace.

For our Raleigh office, we’ve implemented a lot of CDC, local and state health and safety guidelines. We’ve also been working closely with facility managers and building personnel on improving indoor environmental conditions, like upgrading HVAC systems for overall better indoor air. To help us monitor and assure these updates are actually producing optimal levels of air quality, humidity, and air pressure, we’re using environmental workplace sensors. This gives us a real-time pulse on air quality conditions so we know if and how we need to adjust any of the measures we’ve already taken.

And like several companies who are doing more with less right now, these sensors notify our cleaning staff which desks need to be cleaned first so they can prioritize and work more efficiently. This technology also gives us additional peace of mind by monitoring overall occupancy to adhere to capacity requirements and enabling contact tracing capabilities so we can reduce exposure, should it occur.

Read More: Five Simple Steps to Improve Your Employee Experience

5- Equip your team to do their best work in their “me spaces”

Now that you’ve moved most “me spaces” into the homes of your employees who are able to work remotely, you need to ensure they’re well-equipped to perform their responsibilities and do their best work. You’ve likely already done this over the last few months, but if you haven’t, here are a few things we have done and will continue to do with new-hires:

  • Choose a video conferencing system that brings your team together when apart. We’ve increased use of Microsoft Teams, which wasn’t always considered our go-to tool previously, but have helped us get the job done regardless of where we are.
  • Make sure they have the right amount and right quality of VPN to securely share files. Before, we only had a handful of employees with the ability to join office networks when offsite. Now, we have expanded the reach to everyone’s laptops.
  • The right equipment needed to work from home, like laptops, dual monitors, VPN access. This equipment should now become a line item in all company budgets.
  • If you can, consider providing your employees with a work from home allowance so they can build out their home offices.

At the end of the day, CEOs need to enable their teams to do their best work regardless of where they are. Especially now, we need to create clarity by solving the big problems, so that our employees are not worried about illness with a forced hasty return. Instead, they’ll be more confident in their roles, confident in their focus, and confident in their results. Now is the time to show your employees you care about them as human beings – not just a number in a spreadsheet. Put your people first.


From one CEO to another