Back to the Office: How Can You Prepare for a Smooth Return to the Workplace?

My background is in organization development and change management. To address immediate operating business needs for a post-Covid-19 return, I have been helping clients identify aspects of their work practices that need to adapt in order to succeed in a virtual context. I also offer input on return-to-work plans. My greatest value add is helping organizations with long-term thinking and facilitating dialogues that help align workforce skill sets with evolving business models. The goal is to ensure a stronger, better emergence from this period of time.

Colleagues of mine James and Lori from the Heffelfinger Company organize “Zen Fridays” for business leaders. They recently invited me to join a webinar to speak about preparing teams in their transition back to the office. On May 15, I joined one of their clients, a VP of Human Resources at a large Tech Company in Silicon Valley, in my first digital panel. It was a new experience for me to present in a virtual webinar. Below, I’ve outlined a few of the session highlights.

We addressed two key areas:

1. What should you consider in your return to the workplace?

2. What is the “new normal”?

Key Considerations for a Return to The Workplace

Set Intent and Design for What Matters

It is important to know the type of relationship your staff currently have with the office and what truly matters to your organization. The goal is to add intentionality to designing the experience and to remember that the workplace is a space for people to walk the culture.

Use Design to Amplify Perspective and Engagement

In the workplace (and in life) people connect through movement. Movement needs to be taken into account for planning a return. Include people in the dialogue as an opportunity to engage and give choice — inquiry opens possibility. This exercise is about merging physical, digital, and human worlds to drive results, during changing times.

Conducting Business Will Need an Adjustment

Adjustment means change. Change management practices can help. There are plenty of frameworks and tools to support a new way of conducting business. One tool that might be useful is “ADKAR”, to assess where people’s levels of awareness, desire, knowledge and ability to return to the office is, and plan for where it could be. For example:

  • Awareness: How aware is your organization of employees’ desire to return to the office and what it means for your business and people?

  • Desire: How many people are willing to return to the office?

  • Knowledge: What do people need to know before, during and after they return to the office?

  • Ability: How many employees are currently able to come to the office (based on government guidelines, logistics, personal circumstances, etc.)?

  • Reinforcements: What new office behaviors need to be adopted immediately, and what artifacts can help drive continued adaptation?

ADKAR is a useful tool to help start framing your thinking around your employees’ transition. Change management professionals can help you craft a change approach and plan, so your staff remain at the center of your efforts.

Providing Guiding Principles That Give People Choice

Companies should use government guidelines and best judgement to amend policies as needed. Create a path to maximize wellbeing for employees as they return to the workplace.

Employee views may be shaped by:

  • Government restrictions and guidance (i.e. the ability to operate)

  • Financials (i.e. personal money)

  • Infrastructure (i.e. technology, home setup, group collaboration)

  • Existing capability and capacity (knowledge)

Assumptions of a “New Normal” in 2020

This “new normal” is different for every company. It can depend on your organization’s industry, geography, company culture, capability and financials. There is not one “new normal”, but rather an emerging one. Emergence requires us to be present and work with uncertainty.

When it comes to corporate America and the future of work, the workplace conversation may include topics such as:

  • The blended workplace (how and where people work)

  • Changing work practices (the activities that define the workplace and therefore location)

  • Workplace innovation (the continuous improvement in how you get work done)

  • Space utilization (how additional real estate and/or de-densifying strategies can transform your office)

To address this transition to a “new normal”, below are five key elements to consider from an organization development perspective:

  • Intentionality: Bring intentionality to what you do in the short term. It will serve your organization in the long term.

  • Empathy: Presence is key. Consider your multi-generational employees’ perspectives and let those inform decisions. Rely on the influencers in your organization and network to push change forward.

  • Flexibility: The ability to be flexible and adaptable will serve your business well. The development of new skills during these times determine to what degree your company will be able to respond.

  • Exercise Choice: You can decide to return “back” or “forward” to work.

Back to work is the choice to remain focused on the original office space and its organization.

Forward to work is the choice to reflect on the past with a focus on the future, making changes to work habits to revive a new workplace that is better for all.

  • Enjoyment: Remember to celebrate small wins. Create tokens of appreciation, and reward people who contribute to a greater sense of calm and safety in the workplace.

By keeping the above elements in mind, your organization can begin to prepare for a successful transition back to the workplace — and build a resilient strategy for the future that meets your business, staff and client’s needs.

Image courtesy Adobe Stock

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