This year has kicked off with disrupted holidays, cancelled events, mixed expectations and uncertainty about business plans as the pandemic continues.
The World Economic Forum’s ‘Global Risks Report 2022’ revealed this continued concern. When asked how they felt about the outlook for the world, most respondents were either “worried” or “concerned”.
One of the central issues currently facing leaders and employees alike is the issue of returning to the office.
Some employees are firmly in the work from home camp, as they love the flexibility and time saved from no commuting, while others are eager to get back as they miss the workplace energy and home office demarcation. Still, others are concerned about returning to the office with COVID-19 still raging.
So, where do you start as you consider your return-to-work planning?
Do your homework
How you handle this situation demonstrates your organisation’s culture and, in a strong employment market, you may lose key talent if you handle it poorly.
The first thing to do is to uncover your team members’ preferences. Doing this helps to build their buy-in and commitment to the outcome. Remember, individual team members may have different anxiety levels and fear about returning to the office.
Find out who wants to come back and who wants to work from home. As part of this conversation, identify what’s worked well and what hasn’t during the past two years. This analysis provides the data you need to understand likely points of contention and areas of opportunity.
During these conversations, empathise with your team members’ specific circumstances and listen to what they have to say.
You want to listen deeply to hear what’s being said (and not said) and notice any subtle cues transmitted non-verbally.
During the conversation, ask questions and listen empathetically, with compassion and no judgement. The focus is on recognising and acknowledging their emotions and concerns, so you can understand how best to proceed. You want them to feel safe and know you care about their wellbeing and safety.
Put safety first
Leaders have essential obligations with occupational health and safety, so you need to be comfortable and confident that your workplace is ready and your HR policies are up to date.
Consider how you will manage people who come in sick and expectations around Rapid Antigen or PCR tests. Also, check that your office ventilation, check-in procedures and basic hygiene practices are up to scratch.
Don’t forget the importance of your employees’ mental health and wellbeing in your planning. It’s been hard for many people over the past couple of years. International studies reveal an increase in mental health issues, with experts warning the ramifications will extend far into the future.
Actions to force people back into the office when they don’t feel safe or ready may exacerbate issues. Instead, take your time, be deliberate and involve your team in the planning process.
Co-design the outcome
The next step is to work with your team members to co-design possible outcomes. This discussion is your opportunity to facilitate a joint conversation with the team where you work through options and highlight opportunities.
In this conversation, talk through the organisation’s needs and the range of employee and team needs. Agree on where remote working is just as effective as office-based work, and identify those areas where face-to-face interaction is better. As a team, work through how to best balance working from home and days in the office.
Consider how you could reinvent the workplace as the space for collaboration and the place where you meet, brainstorm, socialise and connect. Next, discuss what this will look like in practice for you and the team. It could be that you agree to prioritise face-to-face conversations when you are in the office.
The intent is to create energy and excitement, so the team is enthusiastic about the concept of coming back to the office.
Lead by example
There will always be different needs and expectations, and there is never a one-size-fits-all solution.
The outcome you secure is likely to involve compromise. Above all, be fair and caring, and ensure differences of opinion don’t negatively impact engagement and retention.
Consequently, to succeed, you must lead by example. If you want your team back in the office, you need to prioritise putting in the effort to make it work.
Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert and the award-winning author of three books. Her latest book is Bad Boss: What to Do If You Work for One, Manage One or Are One.