The same set of desks.
The same employee kitchen.
The same old boardrooms and breakout rooms.
You can be away from the office for a long time and yet, when you come back, a lot remains unchanged.
What businesses have to recognize and plan for, though, is the fact that their team members may have changed while they’ve been away.
From early 2020 until recently, many organizations pivoted to a model whereby the majority of their employees were working from home. The success of this approach has since inspired many companies to adopt a permanent hybrid model, where they empower their team to bring their best selves to their jobs from wherever they are.
That still means that staff may be occasionally coming back to the office for specific meetings, for training or as part of a culture-building event. In some cases that could mean people are returning after a prolonged period away, and the transition could bring some challenges.
Memories of the early days of COVID-19 and other disruptions could make it difficult, at least at first, for employees to feel the same sense of engagement at the office. It might take time to adapt work habits that formed while working elsewhere. There could be confusion about changes in employees’ responsibilities and behaviours based on safety protocols or updated policies.
Businesses that help their team grapple with these challenges will learn valuable lessons that could be applied long after the pandemic is a distant memory. After all, employees take absences from the office for a host of other reasons. This includes parental leave, sabbaticals or prolonged illnesses.
Whether you’re welcoming back one employee or your entire workforce, make sure your return to work plan includes:
Businesses have come to realize they need to share information with customers across a variety of different platforms, from their web site to e-mail and social media. The same principle applies in supporting employee as they return to the office.
You might start by formally meeting with employees upon their return and sharing important updates on any specific changes they need to understand in person, for example. Just don’t assume they’ll remember everything they hear.
Instead, have all the relevant details sent their way in an employee newsletter or housed on the company intranet. You could even record a video to make this information easier to digest.
The key to delivering a great customer experience often starts by developing a customer journey map. In other words, you put yourself in your customers’ shoes and imagine everything they’ll see, do and feel from the moment they become aware of your brand to the point after they’ve purchased something. Again, this is a practice that can be extended to employee experiences as well.
Take a moment to imagine your employees arriving on site at the office. What kind of signage might be helpful to convey any safety protocols that could reassure them?
As they settle in at their desk, how can you ensure someone checks in on them periodically to see how they’re adjusting, or if they need to have some coaching or encouragement to overcome any barriers?
How might you facilitate engagement and collaboration with their coworkers — either through a meeting or just a prompt through an internal mobile app?
Simple things can go a long way here. Even buying some coffee or snacks to encourage people to take a break could help remind them that the office is a place of community as well as productivity.
Contact centers and service teams were established for a good reason: you have to expect that when you provide people a product or service that they may need to reach out again for assistance. So will employees once they return to the office.
You may not be able to dedicate an entire team to address employee concerns, but companies or any size can set up ways for their workforce to share any questions or challenges they’re experiencing.
Consider setting up a specific e-mail address for employees to write in for help, and have the messages go to their managers or even the HR department. You could also create a channel in Slack for team members to post feedback that requires further discussion or action. Managers should revisit the cadence of their regular touchpoint with each employee, while town halls can bring the entire company together to convey feedback in a safe but open forum.
One of the common threads you’ll notice here is that a “return to the office” spans more than a single day.
After the initial arrival back after an absence, employees might need support over a period of weeks or even months until they have firmly acclimatized to being back in their old environment.
That means there is no such thing as too much communication, or too many resources you can provide to support their wellness.
This is also an area that should be measured to ensure you’re on the right track. If you don’t have one already, consider fielding an employee survey that touches upon return to office practices. What went well? What could be improved? How are employees feeling about being in the office now?
Many businesses proved highly resilient over the last few years by being in a state of constant learning and optimizing for flexibility amid considerable change. These qualities are just as important now — whether you’re managing people in an office that’s reopening or far outside it, a great employee experience is critical to organizational success.