The pivot to remote was abrupt for the organizations that went through it.
We created new channels of communication, new workflows and processes, new behaviors and new rules. We forged new routines to accommodate the intersections of life and work. We learned how to function on virtual platforms and harness the digital tools that were always there — but hadn’t quite replaced old norms. Many employees got used to it — and even mastered working remotely to the point where it’s going to be jarring to go back.
One study found that nearly half of employees working from home during the pandemic would prefer to stay remote. At our peak in the spring of 2020, 42% of the entire workforce had shifted to working from home full-time — so we’re talking about a substantial segment of the workforce.
As we enter 2021 many organizations are bringing their people back to the workplace — and they need a strategic way to handle the new expectations of employees who were remote in order to strike a balance between their needs and the needs of the business.
Manage this as a change, not a return to old norms
The overall solution is to see the post-pandemic workplace not as a return, but as another transformation. We can’t just snap back to normal: the pressures of the pandemic forged a different approach to working that still makes more sense to many employees.
Whether or how the pandemic comes to a resolute end, it shattered our vision of safety and upended our assumptions about where we need to be to get our work done.
Take a holistic approach
The most effective strategy to bring the workplace back together is to take a holistic approach.
Apply the discipline of change management to develop an overall vision of your goals, commit to accountability, communicate the process, be present and available for employees and bring everyone into alignment. Taking a piecemeal approach — dealing with each issue as a separate task — will lack the cohesion it takes to promote alignment and the consistency it takes to forge trust.
For instance, managing flexibility case by case, without a clear process and criteria, could be perceived as unfairness and favoritism — which is no way to welcome back a workforce. But employees are going to have emergencies — and may be dealing with homeschooling, caregiving and other domestic pressures.
In a post-pandemic workplace, they’re all going to need a specific and clear way to request flexibility or time away. And at this point, they deserve it.
Assess and update your post-pandemic workplace culture
You’re not going to be able to retrofit your employees to your old work culture.
They’re not the same people they were when they left, and they likely don’t want to just forget about the ways they’ve grown, adapted and changed.
Assess how your work culture — your values and your sense of purpose — can better support them. Consider what needs updating to better meet their needs. What needs to be tweaked to accommodate new realities, attend to growing pains and enable people to feel safe? What values will people align around now?
Anticipate pain points and address them in advance
What’s going to enable employees to settle into their on-site workdays again depends, in part, on knowing what contributes to a negative return-to-work experience, and then ruling those factors out.
Go on a fact finding mission, gathering feedback and insights from your workforce to get a fuller understanding of their key concerns. Ask the relevant questions and the hard questions, invite more detailed comments and encourage candor. Share (anonymized) responses and findings, and then work out ways to address them — and share those.
Organizations required the full cooperation of employees to pivot to remote — and it wasn’t always a smooth ride. Now, invite your people to participate, and show they can trust you to listen and respect their perspectives, and then take actions to honor them.
Deal with the elephant in the room
The big question is going to be who needs to come back and who doesn’t. And that question intersects with the other big question, which is who wants to come back and who doesn’t.
Weigh all the options, starting with the business necessity. Make sure it’s really a business necessity, and not just the status quo. Communicate your reasons and needs clearly, and offer options.
How we view our workplaces has radically changed. Employees have learned to optimize their laptops and home collaboration tools. They’ve navigated VPNs and new communication channels. They’ve emailed late into the night and gotten up early to focus on work before the onslaught of Zoom calls. They’ve learned new capabilities — and just as you can’t unlearn digital tools, you can’t unlearn people either. If they can work from home, or maintain a flexible schedule, let them.
On the other hand, you may find that certain employees can’t wait to get back to the office. Is it possible to balance the workforce based on their preference as well as your needs? Particularly if the workforce is at least more than a handful of people, it’s likely.
Make it safe
Safety in the workplace now means digital safety in addition to physical and psychological safety.
Your employees are coming back to work having used personal devices, which also means downloads, games, apps and the stuff that fills our digital lives, particularly when we’re doing nearly everything from home. Give your IT teams a window for making sure laptops and phones are cleared of anything that could harm the company’s digital network, and beef up security and authentication protocols.
If an employee casually notes to a manager that their laptop is behaving strangely, do you have a reporting process in place so the manager can funnel that info to IT? It could be malware, inadvertently picked up. Returning to work should include a digital hygiene phase, mandatory for everyone, just like masks.
On that: if we’re still enduring this protracted health crisis when your employees come back, don’t try to create your own rules for the comfort of some employees who take issue with masking or social distancing.
Make the workplace safe according to the mandated rules and best practices. The health and safety of your workforce is vital to the health and safety of your business.
I’ve spoken to HR leaders who have completely revamped key aspects of their workplace and their work culture — everything from closing up open office spaces and ending informal “jam sessions” (where teams huddled and brainstormed) to curtailing community involvement and cancelling client dinners.
It’s hard to reject the work culture many organizations strove so hard to build: vibrant, energized, engaged, collaborative, diverse and dynamic. But the two things we don’t have to undo are resiliency and integrity. There may be new rules and new values to embrace in your post-pandemic workplace and work culture. There may be new protocols and limitations.
Employees will need time to reacclimatize and reorganize their lives now that they’re out of their homes. But stay true to your core values and give everyone the chance to succeed, to adapt and to come together — and they will.
Meghan M. Biro is a globally recognized analyst, author, speaker and brand strategist. The founder of TalentCulture, she hosts #WorkTrends, a popular weekly Twitter Chat and podcast. Her career spans across recruiting, talent management, digital media and brand strategy for hundreds of companies, from startups to global brands like Microsoft, IBM and Google. She also serves on advisory boards for leading HR technology brands. Meghan can be regularly found on Forbes, SHRM, and a variety of other outlets. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Indeed.