03/31/2021 Kim Robinson, Senior HR Consultant, AC Talent publications

Managing In-Office Work Environments Post Pandemic

by Kim Robinson, SPHR, Senior HR Consultant, AC Talent

As the number of people getting vaccinated against COVID-19 continues to rise, social distancing orders will be lifted, and businesses will continue to reopen more fully. Some organizations have made the decision to permanently work in a remote setting, some plan to return to exactly how things used to be, and many organizations are planning on a hybrid.

Whichever path you are on, there are key factors to consider as you chart your path:

  • Safety
  • Employee engagement
  • Communications  
  • Compliance

Safety

A great resource available to employers here in Michigan is the MI Safe Start Plan with the link provided below for further review and application within your organization. 

MI Safe Start Plan

For those returning to the in-office work environment, employers want to consider a variety of options like:

  • Staggering employee shifts.
  • Rotating days or weeks of in-office presence with telework.
  • Phasing in return-to-work starting with reduced schedule and transition to full-time.

At a minimum, employers should implement basic infection prevention measures in accordance with OSHA and CDC guidelines. These measures will likely be in place for the foreseeable future and may become a new normal. A link to OSHA’s “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19” is provided below.

OSHA Guidance on Workplace Preparation

It is important for employers to keep in mind safety as a top priority to managing their workforce and workplace environments during this pandemic, and beyond, with minimal impact to business productivity as well as manage in accordance with federal and state laws, including temporary rulings and their expiration dates (ex: Temporary Rule: Paid Leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act). 

Employee Engagement

In addition to safety, your return to the office plan should include understanding the new labor dynamics, and maximizing the employee experience. Many employees have struggled with isolation and distractions when working from home, and can’t wait to return to their co-workers, structure and resources.

However, a significant portion of employees enjoy remote work, as it allows flexibility for work/life balance, avoids time consuming commutes, and allows freedom to work from anywhere and to more easily travel. Many employers have found that it is easier to find talent if a remote work situation is allowed. Thus, the competition for talent, and the ability for employees to be recruited from employers around the country is now a reality. Employers that require employees work onsite could find talent retention to be a concern in 2021.

Regardless of the preferences of your employee base to remote work, be sure to take the opportunity to make your employees feel appreciated and celebrate the ability to return to an office environment. Here are a few ideas on how to celebrate this milestone:

  • Have a party! Decorate the office, and bring in lunch (boxed lunches vs. a buffet of course), have a gift basket on everyone’s desk, perhaps a raffle or fun company gear.
  • Acknowledge loss. If there were team members or family members that passed away due to COVID, a memorial or contribution would be appropriate.
  • Acknowledge the year. One company put together a yearbook of sorts where each employee shared photos of their “pandemic projects,” new pets, and other ways to memorialize what has happened on the other side of the Zoom screen.

Communications

Leadership to employee communications (stand-up meetings, town hall meetings, emails, etc.) are always important. During times of change and transition, these connections are critical. Utilize various communication channels to provide details about safety protocols, policy changes, and to describe the leadership vision for the future.

If there is a major change or decision made that is not universally popular - explain the reason for the change, the benefits of the decision, what is done to support the organization during the change, and what will be done to provide additional resources to people negatively impacted by the change. For instance, if you are requiring full-time return to the office for people that enjoyed the flexibility, perhaps, you will offer additional paid time off or flexible schedules.

Compliance

If you are changing your policies to add flexible schedules or telecommuting options, you might need to update your employee handbook. While you are at it, be sure other policies that have been impacted by COVID legislation are also updated, such as FMLA.

You will also want to create a policy if you are mandating vaccinations. This can be a tricky area to navigate, and some organizations are encouraging vaccinations and/or offering paid time off to obtain a vaccination.