Now that social distancing restrictions are easing in many communities, countless business leaders are celebrating that they can finally bring their team members back to the office and get back to work. This is a complex business decision, though, with pros and cons either way. More than that, this decision can significantly impact your people and your organization’s performance long-term if you don’t plan ahead and prepare properly!
While there may be valid reasons why some people and some companies will return to their offices, and perhaps sooner than others, there are several important implications to consider determining the best path forward. First and foremost, what’s driving this decision? In one case, the CEO of a major corporation said that returning to their corporate offices across the US was critical to the Company’s culture. Really? What was this Company’s culture like before the pandemic if returning to the office is this CEO’s solution to cultivating a positive and productive climate for everyone?
Any CEO who is using culture as the critical reason to return to work has clearly missed the opportunity presented by the Coronavirus crisis. We’ve heard many powerful and truly inspiring stories of business leaders across industry sectors successfully rallying their troops and likely building even stronger cultures while working remotely. One of our clients has been holding daily huddles at lunch so her team members can connect via videoconference. The purpose of these informal meetings is simply to say hello, check in with each other, and stay socially connected while maintaining physical distance. No work discussion is allowed during this virtual bonding time.
Similarly, a local law firm is holding weekly Happy Hours every Thursday afternoon. All members of the firm from Managing Partner to junior associate are invited to come together and share personal stories with one another. One week, apparently, each team member described his/her favorite room in his/her home as everyone has been sequestered under the “Safe at Home” orders. Another week, team members shared the music on their playlists for when they walk around the neighborhood to get some exercise.
If building Company culture is not the right reason to return to the office, then, why would leaders choose this over maintaining safe distance and continuing to work remotely? The following are some key considerations to keep in mind as you contemplate your next move during these uncertain and changing times.
- Specific job functions – Some job functions are better performed in the office either because of required access to information or other people. One of our clients, for example, has a team of traders who feed off each other’s’ energy similar to an inside sales team, so they would rather be together than separate at home. Prioritize bringing these positions and workgroups back first if you need to reconfigure your space and create physical separation between co-workers.
- Individual employees – Most people are fairly well-equipped and situated to keep working from home at this point. If they don’t want to come back and are productive, you might consider letting them stay at home. Some team members, such as parents with young children or those who don’t have appropriate workspace, however, are likely struggling at home or might simply prefer to be in the office. Consider bringing these people back sooner rather than later to avoid future performance issues. If nothing else, implement more rigorous performance management practices with your virtual leaders and these remote workers.
- Personal protective equipment & other safety measures – Once your team is back in the office, it becomes your responsibility – and potential liability – to keep them safe. This will require you to institute appropriate protocols to ensure physical distancing between team members as well as a sanitary work environment. Are you planning to take temperatures, or at least have everyone take their own temperatures, before coming to work every day? Have you created a policy yet in the event someone does test positive for the Coronavirus? At a minimum, you might rethink your intentions to re-open the office if you haven’t already procured sufficient hand sanitizer, cleansing wipes, face masks, etc. for your employees and/or if you can’t maintain physical distance requirements in the office.
- Other remote work policies – If you are planning to let any or all of your employees stay at home for a while and especially indefinitely, you might want to consider what other changes are warranted. For example, some of your employees may now need larger desktop monitors or more functional desk chairs at home. Perhaps you want to give each employee an extra $50-100 per month home office subsidy to cover their home office expenses for internet, personal phone service, basic office supplies, etc. if you didn’t institute that at the beginning of all this. Or if you’re going to have employees work a rotating schedule to maintain physical distance in the office, you may need to determine what days you want everyone – or certain individuals – in the office versus what days can be reserved for working from home.
- Corporate real estate costs – With everyone successfully working remotely for the past few months, the cost of maintaining co-located space moving forward is definitely something to consider. Many organizations are already reevaluating their changing business requirements for maintaining fixed office space. If your lease term is coming up for renewal, are you sure you’ll need that much space in the future? Or any space at all? If your organization doesn’t operate a manufacturing plant onsite and you don’t typically have your key clients and customers visit you in your office, you can save precious resources by significantly reducing your office footprint.
Whether you take the path of Google and Twitter who have already announced they are not bringing their employees back to their offices until at least year-end, if ever, or you choose to bring your employees back as soon as legally possible, be sure you communicate your expectations to your staff early and often. In addition to wondering about their own health and well-being, this decision might have additional implications for your team members’ families or their other roommates. With so much changing day-to-day, week-to-week, share your current thinking with your staff and then keep them informed if that thinking shifts as new information may become available.