Reflection, Reopening, and Resilience: Bringing the Workforce Back Practical Considerations

May 27, 2021 - Stillwater, MN:

As COVID cases decline and restrictions in many states, including Minnesota, lift, employers are starting to bring employees back or, at least, starting to think about bringing them back. Some employees may look forward to returning to work – anticipating getting out of the house and escaping the blurred demands that come with sharing home office space with spouses, children or overly dependent house pets. However, a large majority of the work force do not fall into this category and have expressed anxiety over returning to work. These individuals are anxious about their health, anxious about loosing flexibility, anxious about restarting the commute (especially if on public transportation), anxious about childcare and more.

Upon reflection, this dichotomy of feelings makes sense. That transition to work from home was disruptive, but everyone was going through the disruption at the same time and used a lot of grace with each other. Just the nature of employers having to figure out how to enable employees to work from home took some time at the start of the pandemic, and that time gave employees the opportunity to adjust into a new rhythm. With everyone going through the hard stop created by the pandemic and doing it all together, we all formed a sort of “community”, while, at the same time, our flight or fight adrenaline kicked in. This odd combination of individually tackling best practices for remote work while experiencing same or similar experiences as a collective group forced us all to think outside the box, open up our minds to change, pivot and, as a result, adapt.

Going back to work may entail more complicated stressors than before for employees and, unlike the suddenness of the pandemic, employees have a lot more time to worry about how it will go. The employees I have talked to have a million worries running through their minds. Will I get sick? Do I have to get vaccinated? Will they be taking my temperature? What if I just have allergies, will people think I have COVID? Will public transportation be safe? Will people stand 6 feet apart from me in the office? Will we have to mask? Am I going to have to start traveling a lot again and be on planes? Will the open, hoteling spaces be disinfected? How am I going to find childcare again? Will I be okay loosing my flexibility? Will my employer allow working from home or hybrid? What about my pets, can they handle being alone?

The good news is that employers can use this “planning time” to provide clarity, show empathy, calm fears and strengthen your workplace.

Provide Clarity & Set Expectations

Successful workplaces thrive when employees feel respected, valued, safe, and part of a community. Providing employees with a clear plan for returning to work, but making sure everyone understands that this plan likely will shift over time meets these basic workplace needs. If the pandemic taught us anything, we learned to expect constant exposure to new information and changing conditions. Because of this, employers who develop a clear plan and continually communicate the developed expectations, while, at the same time, show flexibility by providing honest responses to employee questions (even when the answer is “I will have to look into that further”) will help employees adjust to impending change and will improve retention. Sprinkle in proactively communicating any new information and changes to the return to work plan will make employees feel respected and lead to increased trust.

Just as important, however, is not approaching the transition as “going back to normal”. Returning to pre-COVID work settings and routines may seem easier; but, ultimately will prove counterproductive, particularly for those employees who have proven they can successfully do their job, at least in part, working from home. By taking this time to reflect on how you want your team to operate differently moving forward will garner greater successes in the future. Take the time now to think about and incorporate into the plan what you miss from the “old normal”, while adding in the things learned from the more recent normal. Oftentimes companies or employers will use surveys to help gather useful insight. In fact, many employers may find they can use information learned to internally “sell” new policy or change. Keep in mind, however, often companies get better information if they use distinct surveys for types of employees, specifically non-managerial versus managerial.

Considerations for Return to Work Plan

Building a change management plan that clearly addresses concerns will help alleviate fears and increase employee trust. The following considerations will help in formulating a plan. Employers may want to form a re-opening task force to help develop these plans or provide input. Many of these teams will include representation from various departments such as HR, procurement, legal, IT, facilities, finance, managerial and more. Additionally, if interested, our team can assist in analyzing workplaces and helping create a plan.

  • Analyze which functions or roles need to return to the workplace to be effective and offer hybrid options for others. Identifying which roles must work on site will help prioritize identification and implementation of safety measures.
  • Assess the type of work that teams need to do in person, including time necessary for these projects, and look at the workspaces you have through that lens for space planning.
  • If possible, continue to offer hybrid option for workers when not essential for them to physically be on site, and have clarity of expectations for remote work, such as percentage of work week time employees can use this option. Provide support to individuals or teams working remotely, including expected working norms and appropriate technology. Offer continual training on making home environments and remote work spaces professional and effective. Look at your onsite technology needs to loop in remote workers to the onsite office.
  • If not possible to offer a hybrid option or if your end goal is to get everyone back in person, then develop a staggered plan to get targeted groups back with clear guidelines for space safety, facilities management, and visitor management geared toward productivity, as well as employee mental health.
  • Review and update HR policies and programs, as required, anticipating situations involving employees refusing to return to work or family situations that make return to work difficult.
  • Build a communication plan to keep employees informed which will increase their confidence and motivation for returning on site. As part of this plan, train managers to continually communicate the plan and expectations to employees, and to dedicate time for employee check-ins.

Show Empathy

Successful leaders understand that employees are all unique with unique strengths which is what benefits your workplace. However, along with the benefits from employees having unique strengths comes your employees’ unique concerns and fears. Strip away your personal pandemic beliefs and approach your workforce understanding that each person’s feelings are true and as valid as your own feelings. As part of this, dedicate resources, whether formally through your own or contracted HR services, or informally, to check in on employees. Successfully checking in on employees, however, means reserving time to truly listen. You may find you get unused time back, but, the assurance provided to the employee of being heard will go far towards helping managing anxiety and making employees feel valued. Remember hardly no one went untouched by loss during the pandemic and those losses have imprinted on each of us. Many experienced personal losses of family and friends, and most experienced other losses, including loss of personal freedoms, income, connections and more.

Calm Fears and Show Joy

Laughter or intentionally finding positive outcomes serves as one of best catalysts for making change or transition less scary. My daughter’s company got into the practice of sharing weekly stories about their work from home mishaps or unexpected work from home delights. Companies that adopt these types of practices and carry them forward in their new model – whether hybrid or transition on-site - will help bring levity along with change. The side benefit of levity and sharing these stories is relationship building, which leads to stronger community. Rather than immediately demanding that everyone return in person, consider highlighting the benefits of getting together in person. Remind your workforce about restarting any pre-COVID office events, practices or celebrations that may have gotten canceled or have been missed by employees because of the pandemic. Indeed, sharing your own excitement about seeing everyone again and not feeling isolated will model behavior for others.

As the pandemic winds down, employers will win in the long run by prioritizing the emotional well-being of your workforce. Whether that means your company ends up with a hybrid model or not, following the suggestions above will ease the transition to the final outcome. Kindness, coupled with clear, well communicated expectations in the workplace has many long-term benefits that will make workplace culture even better than before.

About Eckberg Lammers, P.C.

Founded in 1949, Eckberg Lammers, P.C. is a fixture in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. With offices in Stillwater and Hudson, our attorneys serve clients throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin across a wide platform of practice areas. Our mission is to Build and Strengthen Communities through long-term relationships with municipalities, financial institutions, business and individuals to creatively solve legal needs.

Media Contact: Dana Reynolds
Phone: 651-439-2878 | Fax: 651-439-2923

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