Back to work: Avoid the one-size-fits-all approach to planning

There's no "one size fits all" solution to long-term working arrangements in the post-COVID era.

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Image: VasilyevD, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Most companies have transitioned from "crisis response" mode to planning what working arrangements look like in the longer term, with varying extremes ranging from companies like Facebook publicly announcing that remote work will become the standard mode of operation, while others like Tesla are returning to "normal operations" that look much like they did pre-COVID-19.

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The lack of proven "best practices" creates an additional degree of complexity, with companies, workers, and policymakers learning as they go. This uncertain environment might create a desire for a set of very specific rules in an attempt to address this uncertainty; however, that is likely to be the exact wrong approach.

Thou shalt avoid "thou shalt" policies

I've been involved in my organization's return-to-work planning, and what's amazed me is the vastly different human circumstances facing each individual with whom I've had an opportunity to speak. As you might expect, there are people within my organization who are chomping at the bit to jump on airplanes and work with clients in-person, just as there are people who would prefer to work remotely for the foreseeable future.

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There's also significant nuance. I spoke with people who would prefer to return to a physical office, but have elderly relatives they care for, and are worried about affecting them should they catch something in a physical office. There are also people who would love to return to work, but as single parents are facing an amazing amount of stress and uncertainty should schools not reopen in the fall. Some have also had the courage to share the mental health challenges they're facing, ranging from loneliness to deep depression that has come from isolation from friends and colleagues.

A blanket "commandment" that everyone returns to an office, or everyone works from home will likely create significant damage to your workforce, as the formerly simple act of working has now become a life-or-death decision for many, and intertwined with fraught issues from mental health to privacy.

Create options, and trust your leaders

Your leaders are likely craving guidance and certainly, but that doesn't mean offering a single approach to returning to work. If anything, the post-COVID-19 response likely proved that there are likely a half-dozen viable options to keep your people productive whether they're working from home, an office setting, or some combination. Provide detailed guidelines on these options to create clarity, as well as any specific requirements or restrictions. Rather than reading like a set of commandments, you might have a series of couple-page guides that cover how to work from an office, a customer site, in a manufacturing center, and remotely.

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Communicate these guidelines to your leaders, and allow those closest to their teams to help each team member determine the most effective working arrangement. There will be people who require "hybrids" of multiple arrangements, and there will also be tools and techniques developed at the line level that can benefit the entire organization. If you communicate these as guidelines that are expected and encouraged to be modified, you'll benefit from the wisdom of the crowd and engage your employees as co-owners of the problem of getting back to work, rather than victims of some ill-conceived dictates from corporate.

Don your lab coat

As a society, it sometimes feels like we're waiting for an "all clear" signal of sorts that says we can go back to life as it was. This is unlikely, which can be frightening but is also a time of opportunity. In a few short months we've seen organizations that spent years trying out remote work become proficient, and we've watched companies long perceived as dinosaurs turn on a dime, switching from making cars to ventilators in a matter of weeks.

If you and your teams treat this as a time of learning and experimentation, and engage the entire company in the process of developing and improving how we work, you'll get surprisingly compelling results. The coronavirus is certainly a crisis, but it's also an opportunity to rethink decades of unquestioned assumptions about where, how, and with whom we work. All it takes is a willingness to learn and experiment, and avoiding the urge to seek the perfect answer to a complex problem that will require hundreds of solutions.

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