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April 6, 2021

Best Practices for Returning to Work

by Wendy Ryan in Blog Roll, Leadership

With vaccination rates increasing rapidly, offices are slowly beginning to open back up–many planning to implement a hybrid approach. And we recognize that some employees have been in person and on the job for the duration of the pandemic.

What’s important to note is that not every organization has an adequate plan in place yet to enable their employees’ success in a hybrid setting. We know from experience that face time with employees is important. And even as some recognized a benefit to slowing down (or stopping) travel for business meetings and team gatherings, we’ve also seen that Zoom-only might not be a viable long-term replacement for all of our pre-COVID in-person interactions.

It’s important that organizational leaders don’t “fly casual” on this issue but instead invest time now to develop a thoughtful plan to support their hybrid workforce. Too many organizations assume that managers and their teams will just figure it out on their own. After all, they used to work together in person, then they figured out how to work virtually so hybrid should be easy, right? Wrong!

There are a number of factors to consider–from scheduling to technology to long-term success.

First Steps to Hybrid

Moving from an in-person to virtual workforce at the drop of a hat in 2020 was a challenge. Teams quickly learned how to work together remotely out of necessity. After a year of this, many employees are thriving while some employees are still struggling.

As some team members start to return to the office, either full-time or just a few days a week, developing and agreeing on new team norms will make the transition less stressful for everyone involved.

  • Top leadership should clearly communicate with the entire organization about what a hybrid workforce model will look like at your organization, including how they anticipate specific teams will be impacted. Remember that consistency is key when making changes, and consistency in leaders’ communications could mean the difference between a successful transition to hybrid or unnecessary chaos.
  • Team leaders and managers need to know what the parameters are – relative to policies and processes and where they will have the discretion to establish new norms and expectations for their teams. Team leaders and managers can educate employees about the basics–before anyone transitions back to the office.
  • Each team should have an initial meeting bringing everyone back together in person as soon as possible. This means asking everyone to return to the office for some face time–at the same time. (We recommend doing this at least once a year anyway, whether you’re all working remotely, in person, or somewhere in between.) This meeting is all about re-integrating, agreeing on new team-specific norms and expectations, and how you will measure your success as a hybrid team.

Hybrid Work Scheduling

Many employees have adjusted to new work schedules while working remotely, working around our partner’s schedule, kids’ schooling, and caretaking responsibilities. For some, that means regular check-in calls were shortened or moved, or eliminated altogether in favor of more asynchronous communication. Now is the time to rethink scheduling so everyone can thrive.

  • Decide in advance what hybrid work schedules will look like, understanding many employees will continue to need and value greater flexibility than they enjoyed pre-COVID. Resist the urge to mandate employees return to a strict schedule simply because it’s better or more comfortable for you (the manager), if it’s actually possible to accommodate greater flexibility.
  • Consider assumptions you may be making about your team members when it comes to scheduling and going back to the office in general. Ask employees how to share how they’ll feel about commuting or losing time with family by going into the office and what suggestions they may have to mitigate any concerns.
  • Consider batching your meetings instead of spreading them out throughout the week. If you are used to holding a team meeting on Monday, a department meeting on Thursday, and 1:1 check-ins on Fridays, consider shifting all meetings to be in person but just one or two days a week. This may make for a long day, but it will free up time on other days to accommodate virtual work instead.

Hybrid Technology Considerations

You found out in 2020 how much we can love or leave technology, depending on the day of the week and the quality (or lack thereof) of our home WIFI. Moving some people or everyone back to the office for a few days a week isn’t going to magically solve these challenges. But there are some things you can do to address tech-related challenges.

  • Ensure that every team member is on their own device during hybrid meetings. Staffers in the office should not share laptops or try to squeeze into view of a webcam. Not only does this create sound quality issues, but it also makes those who are Zooming into the call feel excluded from the side conversations that you know will happen.
  • Maintain the virtual water coolers you set up when everyone was working entirely remotely. This allows those who don’t (or can’t) return to the office to continue to feel like valuable members of the team.

Long-term Hybrid Work Success

No one knows how long hybrid environments will be around, but we imagine they’re likely here to stay. Setting up norms and communicating proactively and often as they evolve is going to benefit your organization in the long term. In addition, we recommend that you:

  • Be flexible with your team members’ transition back to the office. If July 1 is your official reopen date, gradually bring employees back for an increasing number of days over four to eight weeks rather than expecting everyone to report back three, four, or five days a week immediately. Start with one day the first week, then go to two days the second week, etc. Ramp-up time will allow everyone (including yourself) time to make adjustments to their personal and professional routines and greatly reduce stress for all..
  • Take team members’ experiences with trauma, mental and physical health impacts into account and take them seriously. Not everyone has weathered the last twelve months in the same way. Some lost family members to death, some divorced or broke up with their partners, some were incredibly sick themselves and still suffer complications from COVID-19. Still more have been traumatized or re-traumatized by the murder of George Floyd, the Capitol riots, and increases in anti-Asian hate crimes. Talk to each of your team members about how the team can best support them to be most productive in a hybrid workplace. Role model and normalize asking for what you need now as a sign of strength, not weakness.
  • Depending on your industry, there may be significant inequities between front-line workers and leadership that are worth addressing. Some of your employees may have been “in the office” throughout the pandemic because of the nature of their roles within your organization. Watching white-collar leaders come back and, potentially, complaining about returning to the office, may foster resentment. Are there ways you can support these employees and recognize the inequity? What if white-collar workers donated some of their paid time off to those front-line workers as a “thank you?”

There’s likely some mixture of excitement and trepidation about returning to work in the office –from both leadership and from team members. Success in implementing a hybrid workplace will largely be determined by leaders and managers recognizing the critical role they play in getting teams and individuals ready for it.