Best Practices for Employees' Return to the Office

This year, much like 2020, has been tumultuous to say the least. Many of us have changed how and where we work, and how we interact and connect with one another. As the pandemic starts to wind down and we emerge from this disruption, HR leaders are asking us for workplace strategies and best practices to ensure their returning employees are safe, happy, and productive, and that their employee engagement levels ramp back up to pre-pandemic levels and beyond.

A recent Deloitte survey revealed there was no indication of a permanent shift to full-time virtual work in the “new normal.” While 67% of the organizations surveyed remain fully remote today, 64% are planning a physical return to the workplace — either fully or using a hybrid approach — at some point in this year. When including those that have already returned, at least 89% will be back in the workplace in 2021.

So, how can you shift from survive to thrive as you prepare for the imminent return of your workforce? Some of our best practices will give you a starting point.

Consider a Hybrid Approach

Zoom recently polled over 1,500 U.S.-based remote workers to better understand what they think, feel, need, and expect about their work future and returning to the office. Of those who worked remotely over the past year, roughly two-thirds (65%) said that a hybrid work environment was ideal. Of those, it was a pretty even split with 33% saying they preferred to work mostly from the office, while 32% preferred to mostly work remotely.

To determine if and how a hybrid model will work for your organization, start by forming a cross-functional planning team to address the needs of various departments, workforce segments and geographical locations. Then, solicit feedback and collect preferences from all employees (see best practice below) via a survey. Once you have gathered all the intel and requirements — including those put forth by local, state, and federal mandates — you will be ready to develop and implement your return-to-work plan.

If you elect to adopt a hybrid working approach (or continue with a remote workforce), be sure to craft an extension of your formal work policy that covers remote work. This will provide crystal-clear guidelines and set expectations of when employees need to be in the office.

Phase in Return Dates

Having employees return on a gradual basis, or staggered work times, limits the number of employees present at a single location at any given time. A phased approach also reduces the burden on the organization (and its cleaning crew) when managing and performing office cleaning and disinfection. Check with your local and state governments for specific guidelines on reopening. The CDC also offers guidelines for workplaces and businesses.

Seek Employee Input

Employee’s responsibilities have expanded both personally and professionally in the past 18 months. Now is a great time to conduct a survey to gain insight into how your employees are thinking and feeling, what challenges they are facing and what they need to manage change and to perform better, both at work and at home. If your organization chooses to administer a survey, acknowledge and share the feedback you received from employees and create an action plan to implement some of their suggestions within the next few months.

Create a Welcoming Environment

When you begin to bring employees back to the office, think about what the employee experience will look like as they return. Consider creating an experience, similar to onboarding, to help welcome employees back to the office. This could include a welcome email, a gift bag with company swag and a company-branded face mask or travel-size hand sanitizer, and an employee guide that outlines safety protocols and any office changes.

Maintain Open Lines of Communication

So that each employee can share their concerns and feel they are being heard, create a dedicated email address or a channel on Microsoft Teams or Slack. Technology company, Envoy, released its latest Protecting the Workplace report revealing nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of U.S. employees "fear a return to the workplace could pose a risk to their personal health and safety," so it is critical to listen to their concerns and address them immediately.

Monitor Employee Retention Levels

According to Pew Research Center, 58% of employees said they would look for a new position if they weren't allowed to continue working remotely in their current position. So how can you retain valuable employees? Make employees’ happiness a priority. Here are some common ways to encourage a happy team:

  • Small gestures of appreciation (meals, treats, cards, flowers)
  • Recognition of a job well done
  • Gratitude for their time and hard work
  • Pay raises or promotions based on achievement and knowledge

Frequent recognition of hard work to your employees can boost morale and also spark improved performance among other team members.

If your valuable workers still prefer to work remote and your organization needs them in the office, a recent article from Forbes details some career-enhancing reasons to go back to an office setting. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) conducted a survey about what remote employees miss about the office that might also resonate with them:

  • In-person workplace conversations (cited by 61% of respondents)
  • The regular and daily structure of reporting to a worksite (42%)
  • Lunches and happy hours with colleagues (40%)
  • Reduced interruptions by kids during the workday (37%)

Share Lessons Learned

While unexpected, there were likely a few good things that happened for your organization and staff during the pandemic. Did your team culture enable everyone to pull together to weather the storm? Did your circle of trust with employees strengthen, since we discovered we were “all in this together?” Did you finally embrace technology and the large part it plays in keeping us all connected? Communicate and incorporate those stories and best practices into your workplace to improve operations and elevate employee satisfaction.

Integrate Wellness into the Workplace

According to Deloitte’s 2021 Global Human Capital Trends report, organizations that integrate well-being into the workplace by giving employees the tools they need to perform at their best, are more sustainable and position themselves for future success. Consider activities that support their physical, emotional, social and financial wellbeing, such as smoking cessation programs, financial planning workshops, support groups for single parents and more. Addressing the human need for quality of life will motivate people to give their very best at work.

Recognize Diversity and Inclusion (D&I)

If you have never dipped your toes into the D&I pool, now is the time. As employees return or you make new hires to fill the gaps, use this time to get acquainted with cultural, ethnic and generational differences as well as physical disabilities. Building and promoting workplace diversity isn't just the right thing to do, it’s also smart business. McKinsey research reports companies with diverse teams outperform industry norms by 35%. Consider creating a video with a message from the CEO that lauds your team’s diversity or establishing mentorship programs or resource groups for underrepresented employee groups. You can also find out more information about D&I in our 2021 Trends and Forecasts Report.

Connect On-Site and Remote Workers

Create opportunities to connect on-site workers with those who are still remote. Hosting video conferenced company-wide meetings and social events on Microsoft Teams or another video chat platform will allow everyone to participate and feel connected to the larger organization. In order to boost morale and keep your workforce connected through shared experiences, think about using the same platform to host a weekly social event, like a trivia game where all employees can look forward to participating and have fun conversing with their colleagues.

Communicate your Larger Purpose

One of the most effective ways to keep your workforce connected and strengthen the employee experience is to continue conveying your organization’s purpose and values. They are the cornerstone of your team culture and will guide your organization through this transition, helping to maintain alignment with everyone’s values and goals.

Even with the concerns over returning to work, a WeWork study shows the overwhelming majority of employees (90%) miss the workplace — the proximity to colleagues, small talk at the water cooler, and of course, lunch and snacks — and want to spend at least one day a week in their office (94%). By putting these best practices to use in your return-to-work strategy, your employees will have a smoother transition and your business will have less disruptions.

Topics: wellness, employee motivation, employee engagement, employee experience, strategy, culture, best practices