Much of the world is now several weeks into the new way of working and has adapted to remote work and a life of video conferences and seemingly unending phone calls rather than the in-person meetings and office-based interactions that seem like a distant memory. However, it seems that as the impacts of COVID-19 are becoming better understood, many regions and US states are starting to reopen. At first blush, though, creating a near-term recovery plan might seem as easy as telling everyone “go back to what you were doing before,” there will be some challenges that can be mitigated with a bit of thoughtful planning.
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Enjoy the luxury of planning
During the initial phases of the COVID-19 response, most of us had little or no opportunity to plan. My local school system closed for what would ultimately be the rest of the year on a Sunday at 5 p.m., after having closed the doors on Friday with teachers, students, and parents assuming they’d be returning to school on Monday. Many businesses had similarly unplanned closures, leaving employees scrambling to develop contingency plans.
We now have the relative luxury of being able to plan a return to office work and should take advantage of this opportunity.
Coordinate your technology recovery plan
It may seem obvious, but technology is an important element of getting employees back to office work. Ensure that your technology plan accommodates other business units’ schedules and plans. You’ll likely have to create some flexibility, as different units will return at different times, and there will also likely be some “hybrid working” for several weeks or months, in which some groups remain outside the office.
Try to come to the table with two or three supported “modes of working” that you’ve thoughtfully considered rather than a “blank slate.” If you offer some version of traditional in-office technology, as well as continue to support a more standardized remote work approach, you’ll help avoid having to accommodate a dozen nuances to these approaches.
Plan how you’ll reopen your physical spaces
Depending on the circumstances of your company, your physical spaces may have been vacant for several weeks. This presents challenges ranging from abandoned food creating the “refrigerator of death” to badges that may have automatically expired, preventing anyone from accessing your building or server rooms.
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Solicit volunteers, led by you as their leader, for an “advance guard” that checks the condition of your physical spaces and determines if any special cleaning or mitigation is required. Include an office worker from another business unit who is willing to volunteer to serve as a “test employee” who will ensure everything from badge access to Wi-Fi are working. You’ll likely find equipment that needs restarting, or devices that have gone offline. Help your advance guard team document what they find and all the actions they need to take to “reboot” the physical office, as these can serve as a template for other locations and be incorporated into a comprehensive recovery plan should another COVID-like event occur.
Don’t forget the human factor
Most of us have spent the last several weeks operating in a strange work environment, not physically interacting with colleagues, while being blasted by messages from the government and media about physical distance, masks, and general chaos. Don’t expect your people to return to the “old way of working” immediately. You may need to adjust the layout of your office, and perhaps even consider unconventional adjustments, like providing dedicated offices to staff who struggle with returning to work, rather than based on seniority.
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You’ll also need to plan for how to accommodate individuals’ desires to interact physically, acknowledging that different people will have different tolerances. For example, your support tech may be more than happy to resume her usual practice of visiting individuals to provide one-on-one support, but a subset of those individuals may be extremely wary of having someone they don’t know in close proximity, touching their keyboard and screen.
You’ll never be able to anticipate every nuance of these interactions, so make sure that you stress in your communications to your teams to encourage frank conversations about these issues and have enough empathy and understanding to accommodate varying needs for individual space. In the example above, having your desktop support team mention that it will need to access an individual’s computer and offer to wear gloves, or have the option of a drop-off service that includes a full sanitation process will open a dialogue that can identify each individual’s comfort level.
Most of us will experience a range of emotions, from relief to dread, as we head back into the physical office. With some thoughtful planning and a large measure of flexibility and empathy, you’ll find the balance that starts bringing your employees back into the office and gets your company back to a semblance of normalcy.