Non-essential shops, museums, cafés, and now pubs and restaurants are starting to open their doors again as lockdown restrictions loosen. As the business landscape returns to some form of normality – face-masks and social distancing aside – office-based companies are now asking: when should we reopen?
Whilst some staff may be excited to return to a physical workplace, for many, it’s a source of anxiety. In fact, 70% of workers surveyed by PwC report there are several reasons that are stopping them from wanting to go back to the office, including the fear of getting sick, worries about using public transport, and issues surrounding childcare.
A lot of employees prefer the remote working lifestyle too, and would rather forgo the office now that they’ve had the opportunity to work from home. A study by IBM found that 54% of those surveyed want remote to be their primary way of working post-pandemic. It’s not surprising, given that those who work from home often report higher levels of happiness, productivity, and work life balance, as well as lower levels of stress thanks to no commute, and savings on childcare costs.
That said, many people enjoy the social interaction that comes from going into an office every day, and prefer to have a more defined barrier between work and home. Lockdown, and the lack of face-to-face connections in the office, have fuelled feelings of loneliness too. A survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that almost 1 in 4 adults said they experienced loneliness as a result of the impact of Covid-19.
Perhaps the question companies should be asking is: should we reopen the office at all, and in what capacity? The best way to get the answer is to ask your staff. Get a pulse on how they’re feeling by sending surveys, communicating the practicalities of a socially-distanced office, and listening to their concerns. Here are some suggestions on how to get started…
Understand how your staff feel about the office
It’s important not to assume that everyone will want to return to the office post-lockdown, nor that everyone will want to stay at home. Everyone’s experience of working remotely during the pandemic is different, and will likely affect how they want to work in the future. What’s clear, however, is that business leaders now have an opportunity to redefine the workplace and design a working environment that gets the best out of their staff.
Start the conversation by sharing an intranet survey to your staff, to understand how they would like the future of work to look. Ask them about the benefits or challenges they experienced whilst working remotely, their concerns about safety if they were to return to the physical office, and if they would like to continue working from home post-pandemic. The results will reveal valuable insights that will help inform the ‘if’, ‘when’, and ‘how’ you reopen the office.
Clearly communicate how your office will operate safely
Unless there is demand for your business to become remote-only – which is entirely possible thanks to the digital workplace – you’ll need to consider the practicalities of managing a socially-distanced office. Measures such as one-way systems, staggered start times, sanitisation stations, and cleaning schedules are vital for keeping your employees healthy, and provides reassurance that they can feel safe at work. It might also be helpful to create a contingency plan in case there is a second wave, so that you have some guidelines for managing the constant switch between office and home working with minimal disruption.
Once you have a plan in place, your internal comms team must distribute this information fast, and reinforce the message again and again to highlight its importance. Use your intranet to push critical announcements to all staff, alerting them to the safety protocols you’ve put in place and what they need to do to comply. Add ‘read and accept’ notices so that you can monitor who has seen and acknowledged this important information, and send reminders to anyone who hasn’t yet responded.
In this situation, there is no such thing as too much communication, so broadcast your safety measures in as many areas as possible to expand coverage, including news feeds, mobile push notifications, and internal intranet messages.
Listen to and empathise with your staff
There are no rules about how people should or shouldn’t react in such an unknown crisis as this. As we ease out of lockdown and eventually out the other side, it’s likely that things won’t be the same as before, and instead there will be a “new normal”. For some, this will come as a relief and give them a chance to redefine their priorities, but for others, this means plans, routines, and opportunities are thrown into disarray.
Empathy, flexibility, and a supportive company culture are key to helping staff transition to a new way of working, whether that’s returning to the office, working from home, or a mixture of both. Use the results from your staff survey to understand which employees in particular may struggle to adapt, keeping in mind that they may have other concerns – such as caring responsibilities or anxieties surrounding physical and mental health – that prevent them from adjusting. By listening to your staff and being flexible in meeting their needs, you can help them feel supported and better prepared for what’s next.