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8 Steps to Welcome Employees Back to the Office

COVID-19 changed your workforce. Here’s what they need going forward, even as the Delta variant rages on.

The return to the office is coming. Or… maybe not quite yet.

Thanks to the delta variant of COVID-19 raging across the world, company executives are grappling with the decision of when exactly to reopen their offices. Amazon said it would postpone its corporate office reopening until at least 2022. Microsoft, Prudential, Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple also moved back their plans for office reopenings for an additional month. 

The good news for employers: Despite the delay, people actually want to be in the office again, at least part of the time. As many as 24% of knowledge workers said they would prefer to be in the office five days a week, according to a Fortune Magazine survey in August of 10,447 “knowledge workers” or “skilled office workers” in Australia, France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. 

That data reinforces the idea that the office is not going away. Hybrid is here to stay, and the longer the pandemic lingers, the more people want to get back to the office. Since December, there’s been an 8% increase in the number of workers who want to get back to the office, according to Fortune. And hybrid is the No. 1 choice.

Whether your office reopens in September or in 2022, it’s important to prepare employees for the return to the office and get them excited to come back.

Here are 8 ways leaders can do this:

1. Continue to prioritize safety.
Just as employers did during the early days of COVID, prioritizing employees’ well-being will continue to be important as the delta variant spreads. Vaccinated people have a lower risk of contracting COVID-19, including the Delta variant, and they’re less likely to suffer serious illness if they do. But rare breakthrough cases have caused alarm. Some employees may be immune compromised or may be dealing with new challenges in childcare, elder care, or mental health, writes Deborah Lovich, a managing director of the Boston Consulting Group and Nikhil Bhojwani, partner at healthcare consulting firm Recon Strategy in a recent Harvard Business Review piece.

In addition to the standard sanitation areas, mask policies and touchless door knobs inside offices, leaders may also consider physically separating offices and cube areas and utilizing touchscreen and temperature scanning kiosks to prevent people who have a fever from entering.

2. Give workers a why.
There is still a good chunk of employees who’ve gotten pretty used to working remotely and would prefer to continue on that way 100% of the time. That’s why it’s vital for companies to communicate the value of spending time in the office to both their employees and to the organization as a whole, writes Mark Flickinger, a General Partner and COO at Panoramic Ventures in Atlanta. In the past, the value of the office might have been assumed.

But today, employers must articulate what’s missing at home and what can be gained from being back in the office. Writes Flickinger: “Understanding the “why” behind a decision is infinitely better than just being told to ‘do it because that’s what we used to do.’”

3. Upsell your office value.
Perhaps the value of the office is just time away from the house, better wi-fi, quieter conference rooms, time away from the kids, or time away from distractions. Employers could, for instance, maximize the office space for collaboration or free food—and then communicate those benefits to employees. Pay attention to where people gather in the office, and then bring tables, chairs, extension cords, whiteboards and markers to facilitate more of those meetings, says Leni Rivera, a workplace experience specialist and author of the book, Workplace Experience: Create a place where people thrive, business grows and unique culture lives.

“Instead of focusing on where people work, focus on how they work and what will empower people to be happy and successful,” says Rivera. “I call it creating the Workplace of You. Because if you don’t put your employees first, you’re going to lose them.”

4. Focus on human connection.
The biggest reason people want to get back to the office? They miss each other. Among those returning to the office, 33% interviewed by Fortune cited the desire to collaborate with their coworkers as the No. 1 reason for wanting to get into the office, according to Fortune. It’s followed by 25% who say camaraderie with fellow coworkers. Few of us will miss the seemingly endless group videoconferences.

“We are social animals, and now this has been taken away from us and we kind of forgot what it is,” Duke University behavioral economics and psychology professor Dan Ariely told CNBC this month. “But I think when people go back to work, we will remember.”

5. Consider a trial period.
It’s a good idea to provide a trial period for return to the office, instead of forcing employees into a permanent return-to-work plan, says Ariely. Companies might offer employees shortened work weeks for a specific amount of time, and after that time, employees can decide to work more days per week. Eventually, when it’s safer, people will likely want to spend more time in the office, he told CNBC.

“​​Going back is just a difficult step,” Ariely says. “But if we get people to do it, for even a month or two, I think people will be very different at the end of this period.”

6. Boost communication—and be flexible.
Employees may grow more anxious about the return to the office if company leaders don’t effectively communicate. Yet while employees need clear direction and leadership, company leaders must remain flexible and adaptable.

“When the future is unpredictable — as it continues to be thanks to the pandemic — it makes sense to keep options open,” write Lovich and Bhojwani in HBR. “As leaders share their decisions about reopening timing and the mix between remote and onsite work, it is important to be upfront and honest about what they don’t know.”

7. Abandon the 9-to-5.
The COVID-19 lockdown proved that the traditional 9-to-5 workday in an office isn’t necessarily the key to employee success. Productivity grew when people worked from home—plus they gained more control over their workday.

Companies should focus not on time spent but rather the results, says Rivera. Not every task takes eight hours. “Companies are thriving and productive, but yet people are doing a thousand other things—taking a walk at lunch, playing with their kids, doing chores,” she says.

Moving away from the traditional office hours may positively contribute to worker satisfaction and positive quality of life, too, writes Flickinger. “To be sure, the office as we knew it has likely changed forever.”

8. Focus on mental health.
Going forward, it will be important for corporate executives to realize that people and employees may not be able to “bounce back” to the way they were before the pandemic, says Rivera. In fact, scientists and experts at Harvard University say that much like the Great Depression and World War II, there will be a lasting impact on every part of our generation as we return to life after the pandemic and that these “broad but hard-to-predict effects will affect society for decades to come.”

Place a priority on mental health at your office. This could be including a yoga room or a meditation booth or just a space to go check out. “When you invest in these spaces, it signals that it’s important to the company,” says Rivera.

Companies that remain focused on their employees will naturally take their time with this evolution, she says. If you support those workers, you’ll be more likely to create a successful workplace of the future.