The SMART Workplace understands that the decisions organizations make today will impact their employees for years to come. Because the COVID-19 pandemic is still active, and the situation is evolving organizations must take a thoughtful, employee-centric and long-term approach to their re-entry planning. By facilitating a transparent, empathetic and fluid re-entry, organizations can learn what is possible and preferred in their next normal.

Pitfall #1 Mind the Gap!

We are seeing a gap between the C-Suite and the frontline workforce that needs to be tackled. One example is Google’s announcement of their plans to fast track its reopening and informing employees that if they want to work remotely after September 1, 2021, for more than 14 days per year, they will have to formally apply for it.  Fourteen days per year roughly translates into 1.33 days per month. It is likely there was more remote work happening before the pandemic at Google then there will be after the pandemic.

And Google is not alone; there is a call across American corporate board rooms to bring people back to the office sooner, rather than later – but at what cost? Report after report confirms that employees prefer a hybrid workstyle, with an average of 2 – 3 days per week in the office, or 40 – 60% of the work year… A far cry from 1.33 days per month.

What is the risk of carrying out an overly structured, rigidly timed, re-entry? There are several: Did you know that the US Government anticipates unemployment to roll back to pre-pandemic levels by 2022? This will likely lead to high turnover in organizations that are not considering employee readiness in their reentry strategy. Also, the impact to employee engagement and trust can be eroded if people don’t believe their input and experience is taken into consideration as we move into whatever the next world of work will look like.

Organizations are building tools, protocols and policies, which is great, but are these activities happening with an eye toward fluidity and awareness that finding the right hybrid balance may take time, especially when we are still addressing Pandemic safety? Are feedback systems in place that ensure a right balance? I hope so, because returning to the office  is a tenuous journey that must be done together, with everyone involved, across all levels of the organization, not just from the top down.

Leaders inside organizations have a responsibility to look beyond the short-term re-entry strategy, beyond leases and beyond individual preferences to the long-term vision of the future of work. The question is not ‘How quickly we can get people back?’ Instead ask, ‘How can we best support our workforce over the next 12 – 24 months with a neutral (and ideally, a positive) impact on wellbeing, engagement and the workforce’s ability to support their customers, clients and each other?’ Companies who hold onto their old business models and not focus on retraining their teams to work in a distributed, highly digital world, will begin to fade away.

Pitfall #2: Re-entry Criteria

Many organizations are beginning with a voluntary reentry strategy. The criteria that are placed around this first round of volunteers will determine the success or failure of the re-entry program. Compliance with CDC and state guidelines is a given, but what other criteria might be added to create an inclusive and rewarding experience for these important volunteers?

When formalizing the re-entry criteria, take the time to learn what works, iterating criteria as you learn. If too many “rules” are put in place too early, they become barriers.

The following questions should be considered:

  1. Will there be a minimum days per week employees are expected to be in the office, and why?
  2. How long will these early returners be expected to stay on at the office? Is the return a trial run? A long-term plan?
  3. Will vaccination be a requirement?
  4. Will people be returning to their original workstation or a new seating format such as hoteling?
  5. Are new hires eligible since they would have limited or no experience with campus life? How will you onboard and engage new hires virtually?

Pitfall #3 To Incent or Reward or Both?

To incentivize or reward returning to the office, that is the question! Incentives are a great way to gain participation, but is that the right strategy at this time? We vote no, it’s important to have the right individuals to support this strategy. The early adopters, who are heading back to the office need to be committed to a successful return or hybrid experience, not requiring incentives.

They will be the “pioneers” in this next normal of the workplace experience. Rewards and recognition must be well thought out and have impact. To identify what matters to this first group, hold focus groups or conduct pulse surveys about what they value in an in office experience. If you haven’t considered this before, consider it now. What people value about their work has changed dramatically in this past year. It’s a good idea to revisit what’s important and prepare. For example: Free lunch, great idea! Is it worth the additional 120 minutes someone may be taking on as they return to the office? Hmm, not so sure. Exposure to leadership? Yes, this value will remain high, so how can your executives support the early adopters of re-entry? Now free lunch with a high level executive would definitely be worth the challenge of driving to the office and wearing pants with waistbands. You get the idea, be creative, be specific and continue to ask for feedback.

Pitfall #4 Do it fast, or do it right?

Do it fast, or do it right? We are seeing tremendous pressure on Human Resources professionals to quickly engage the workforce to participate in summer re-entry programs. The trouble is that what they are entering isn’t what the post-covid workplace will be. We simply don’t fully know yet. Organizations must be crystal clear on what the outcomes of early reentry will bring. What will they learn? Is it mission-critical or a choice based on a desire to get back to comfortable normalcy? One of my favorite practices is to use scenario planning to imagine a variety of different outcomes and build a re-entry and future workplace strategy that will hold up in a range of possible outcomes.

For the first time in my career I can honestly say, I can’t imagine what this world will look like in 5 years, or even one year, so my mission for 2021 is to observe, inquire, respond and adapt. One last thought I want to share is that time is our ally, not our enemy, it’s  the most valuable resources we have, so take it, as much as you need, do this right.