Let’s first think about the practical safety steps. The presence of these are not only a legal requirement in some cases, but a proactive approach will reassure employees and your customers that you’re taking their health and wellbeing seriously. Will you need employee health screening procedures? — such as monitoring the temperature of people coming into the office and their status of vaccination. For example, in New Zealand the government has mandated that people must be vaccinated in certain sectors — for example those in the education sector, health and disability sector and those involved in border control. Outside of the government guidelines, businesses can do their own assessment of whether vaccination is required should a risk assessment deem them to be essential.
Check the local requirements for the use of Masks and PPE inside the workplace. There’s a good chance masks or face shields will need to be worn in certain closed spaces, such as lifts/elevators and other common spaces — or all the time depending on the type of work being done. Remember — people will forget to bring their own masks — and the very simple versions aren’t the most robust of items — so you’ll need to procure a stock and develop a policy for how and when they are shared.
Most employers (and commercial locations) have brought in new and improved cleaning regimes to help prevent the spread of COVID. This includes deep cleaning of the most shared surfaces in high traffic areas. Whether you have a cleaning team in-house or have a facilities management company, collaborate to agree a comprehensive cleaning plan that details exactly where and when each area needs to be sanitised and with which approved materials. When was the last time your air conditioning filters, or ventilation system was cleaned? — and do you have the option to add air purifiers or HEPA filters? — these can help as an added precaution. Some extra elbow-grease will be needed on shared equipment. During these extraordinary times — avoiding shared keyboards is a good idea. Individual laptops are the way to go (or personal keyboards and mice) if possible.
Don’t wait for someone to confirm they are positive for COVID before you develop and implement your exposure response plan. You’ll want to develop a response plan that spells out the isolation, containment and contact-tracking processes and procedures. If someone test positive for COVID, will you be able to track the people they came into close contact within the previous days (including non-company visitors to the office)? Check the latest government guidelines on recommended ways to notify employees and the required isolation and stay-at-home requirements before someone can return to work.
There are several steps you can take to limit physical proximity in the workplace and implement social distancing. Setting limits on office-capacity is a no-brainer and will involve a hybrid workplace where each day, a proportion of the workforce are based from home. How about a rotating schedule so people know exactly when they have options to work from the office? For non-office environments, staggering shifts can help to minimise the number of people using a space simultaneously. If space permits, move workstations apart to increase the space between them and implement a one-way system of movement.
A reduction in business travel — and the minimum of customer meetings
At this time, you may wish to review your business travel guidelines. This includes visits to customer or supplier sites (and them visiting you too). Currently, it’s probably best to err on the side of caution and limit travel to that which is absolutely necessary. Of course, in certain sectors, in-person visits can’t be avoided, in which case communicate sensible guidelines on how to stay safe and avoid taking risks.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
The steps you’ve taken to get the office ‘return to work ready’ are only going to succeed if they are well communicated and reinforced. It’s going to be best to take a phased approach, starting small and then increasing the numbers of people that can come in (up to a safe capacity). Communicate regularly. Have senior leaders announce and explain the details of the staged return to the office. Ensure they communicate clearly about who can come back and when — as well as details of the measures taken to ensure that the office is as safe as it can be. Have line managers cascade these messages down to their individual teams. Send out emails to everyone and share the messages on intranets and messaging platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Slack. Make great use of in-office (and on-site) communications to keep reminding people of the precautions and updated rules. If you’re asking people to keep two metres apart — then show them visually what this looks like (how about a giant ruler in reception?). Use punchy, bold graphics to remind people to sanitise, put on their masks and wash their hands. Use temporary screens and flexible barriers to enforce and remind people about one-way systems. Put hand sanitiser on every desk — and a reminder to use regularly. Don’t let visitors (if allowed) to forget about the special measures you have in place.
Don’t shoot the messenger
People coming back to the office will be nervous and not quite know what to expect. Be firm but fair, allowing people to adjust. Remind all your people not to take out their frustrations on the support staff in the building. You don’t want Deborah from Development losing her rag with the person on the front desk in an argument about wearing a mask in the lift.
The golden question! — Who should return to the office? — and when?
There’s no hard and fast rule for who should return and when. A commonsense approach should prevail — and especially one that doesn’t discriminate in any way. It goes without saying that people need to feel comfortable about coming back — they need to feel mentally and physically prepared. Consider the needs of people who are in an at-risk category — perhaps due to a health condition, age or their need to look after other at-risk individuals. In New Zealand, the Ministry of Health has put together guidelines on those who are potentially at higher risk of contracting COVID. The return to the office is a shared journey — and ultimately you don’t want anyone feeling left behind. In the last two years, workplace loyalty and culture has worn thin in many industries. Don’t let a heavy-handed approach ruin the goodwill you’ve built during this time.
Don’t let the people staying at home feel left out
The last thing you want to do as you reopen the office is to create an ‘us vs them’ workplace culture. You need teams to function cohesively no matter where they’re located. Therefore, ensure your remote workers still feel connected and informed. Let people dial in to huddles and briefings — and don’t let performance management coaching sessions fall off a cliff. Keep the momentum going. And if you’ve been one of those employers who transferred workplace benefits like fancy coffees, fruit and sweet treats into the home, keep doing that if you can, via little rewards and gift cards. Things are still far away from where they were, so every little helps when it comes to supporting people wherever they are working.
Level the playing field — onboard everyone again
Many workplaces have been left oddly fragmented by the return to the office. The physical distancing means there just isn’t the same intimacy or camaraderie. There’s less opportunities to network and meet new people via sheer serendipity. Before you’d meet people from different department in the lift. There were cheese and wine evenings. New starters would have lovely get-to-know you lunches. Now where has that all gone? You’re just as likely to return to an office where you’ve never met the people you’re going to be sat next to.
A way to level the playing field is to put everyone though a new onboarding together. You can skip all the boring bits, and there’s no need to go through all the formalities. But your ‘great reset’ onboarding should include all those great socialisation features that enable people to get acquainted, meet new people and learn about your all-important workplace culture. Think about this as a way to give each and every person a chance to succeed, so that you’re not left with a two-tiered system and siloed teams. As you take on new people, you should think about your employee onboarding system and onboarding process. The challenge of integrating office based, hybrid and completely remote employees must become business as usual.
In conclusion, the return to the office needs careful consideration. Don’t do it until you’ve given it careful thought and consideration, making the changes necessary to welcome people back safely. If remote working is working for you — take your time to get your ducks in a row. When people do come back — you want people to feel confident to regain their routine and productivity.