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Returning to Your Office Responsibly in the Wake of COVID-19

By: Swecha Bhavana


The COVID-19 pandemic has been a source of major disruption for countless organizations operating in nearly every industry. With the curve-flattening shutdowns of non-essential businesses and services, deserted roads, public areas, and office spaces have become a common sight over the past two months. Today’s organizational leaders are tasked with balancing the short-term necessities involved in keeping their business operations running in this time of crisis and long-term strategic planning — all without compromising the health and safety of their employees and society at large.

As states explore slowly easing restrictions on movement and congregation and people become cautiously optimistic that the worst is behind us, it is paramount for organizational leaders to start taking action by creating carefully crafted, precise plans for the re-entry of their workforce into physical offices.

SEI’s approach to getting employees back to physical offices has four core tenets:

  1.     Strategic measuring, monitoring, and mobilizing
  2.     Workforce transition planning
  3.     Real estate/office space planning
  4.     Change management

As illustrated by the graphic above, change management is central to all three other tenets of our approach. Returning to a physical office after months of remote work will be as much of a change as the sudden shift to remote work was, and leaders must plan — and manage — accordingly. Below, we explore these four tenets in greater detail.

1. Strategic Measuring, Monitoring, and Mobilizing

A lack of certainty in how the current situation will evolve need not result in a lack of organizational preparedness. Be sure to keep tabs on the broader situation to understand how the enforcement of regulations (or lack thereof) should inform your plans, processes, and responses. Where possible, apply learnings from other countries, regions, and organizations that have gone through phased re-entries. Everyone is facing this challenge and reacting to it in ways that are more similar than different. Be open to leaning on peer organizations, advisors, and consultants to help you with this. Form joint task forces with organizations in your industry and find ways to collaborate and develop synergies.

Organizations can develop this situational awareness in a number of ways, including:

Focus on data & analytics

Data & analytics have never been more critical than in this highly causal, action-reaction environment. Organizations should move from acting on anecdotal information to data-driven decision-making. Invest in analytical tools to monitor the trendlines of key metrics such as local infection rates, hospitalization rates, and so forth that will have an impact on your employees’ risk of exposure. Closely monitor these metrics to detect anomalies and shifting trends.

Set up key indicators and triggers

Plan ahead and identify any and all trigger points and warnings based on your identified metrics that might force you to adapt your plan, pick up speed, or grind to a halt. Create action plans for best- and worst-case scenarios that account for factors like an employee’s or a family member’s diagnosis with COVID-19, a surge in overall cases, a vaccine or treatment becoming available, recurrent waves of infection, etc. In order to set up the right triggers and indicators, it is essential to identify reliable data sources. (You can find a list of key government and academic resources at the end of this guide.)

Be agile and nimble

It is critically important for organizations to remain agile and nimble enough to pivot and respond to the rapidly evolving situation, accelerating or decelerating the execution of their office re-entry plans as necessary. Recognize that, in circumstances like these, your current plan is always a tentative plan, and you should frequently test, monitor, and adjust in light of new conditions. Plan for all possible scenarios and be ready to pivot at a moment’s notice. As you progress through your plan’s phases, conduct frequent retrospectives on what has worked well and what could have gone better.

2. Workforce Transition Planning

Organizational leaders must acknowledge that transitioning employees back to physical office spaces will need to happen in multiple phases. The number, scale, and scope of these phases will vary based on factors including (but not limited to) an organization’s sector/industry, the nature of its business, its location, and the number of its employees. At a high level, the progression of these phases might look something like:

As you think through how to structure the specifics of these phases, keep the following in mind:

Evaluate and prioritize the who and the why

Identify your essential business functions and teams and evaluate if they can be productive in a remote working environment. For your first phase of re-entry, consider only allowing employees that need to be physically present in the office to do their work effectively to return. Some organizations are already supporting a small number of essential employees in their offices. If that is the case with your organization, think about very slowly expanding this circle to the next-most essential functions and teams.

Be thoughtful and methodical on the how

Once you have identified your first wave of re-entrants, experiment with creative ways to execute these employees’ return to the office. Consider creating a rotation of teams and individuals who need to be on site. Stagger work hours and workdays — think different shifts, reduced onsite working hours, and anything else that will help to maintain social distancing requirements. For example, you could have different onsite working hours for teams that may not need to collaborate together or have staggered shifts for teams that support other teams.

Keep empathy and flexibility top of mind

Evaluate your employees’ level of comfort in returning to your physical office. Many factors will come into play here, including personal and family circumstances, the status of schools and childcare facilities, and reliance on public transportation. Everyone’s scenario is different, and it is important to recognize these differences and be sensitive, empathetic, and flexible in terms of what you ask of your employees. Do not measure performance or success based on an employee’s ability to return to your office — and definitely do not penalize anyone for circumstances that are beyond their control. Engage with your legal counsel and follow CDC guidelines to ensure more vulnerable employees are identified and protected.

3. Real Estate/Office Space Planning

To provide a safe working environment for your employees, your physical office space planning needs to be aligned with the guidelines provided by WHOCDCOSHA, and state and local authorities. Global companies will need to take a decentralized approach that is based on the local regulations in each of the countries in which they operate. Clear protocols for maintaining physical distance, using personal protective equipment (PPE), and properly disinfecting and sanitizing objects and surfaces will be critical to ensuring the health and safety of your employees.

Here are several key considerations for organizations starting to map out what their offices should look like in the wake of the pandemic:

Reinvent existing workspaces

Open office layouts are not conducive to maintaining physical distancing requirements. Consider shifting to cubicles or semi-closed layouts by installing plastic or plexiglass dividers. Try placing strips of tape on the floor to provide visual guidelines for the space needed to maintain the minimum required physical distance. Hoteling spaces (or “hot desks”) are a good idea if you are alternating team members every week. Further, think about reducing non-essential furniture and other similar items — less furniture means fewer surfaces to sanitize. Organizations should also treat this as an opportunity to re-evaluate real estate costs. Workspace reconfiguration always has costs associated with it, so it is important to perform a cost/benefit analysis and gauge your real estate and physical office space needs based not on the old normal, but on what the new normal might look like.

Assess communal spaces

Communal spaces and equipment like conference rooms, breakrooms, cafeterias, elevators, coffee machines and refrigerators, and devices like computers, printers, phones, and fax machines are high-traffic/high-touch areas and items that will require frequent sanitization and deliberate regulation. Carefully consider which vendors — coffee shops, cafeterias, etc. — you want to open during which phases to support your employees as they return to the office. If your organization shares co-working space or is in a multi-tenant building, be sure to share guidelines for the use of communal spaces with your employees and other tenants. Be in regular contact with the building owner and management company and clearly define their roles in disinfecting and sanitizing common spaces, and do not hesitate to hold them accountable to these roles.

Embrace a more flexible, dynamic work culture

The effects of physical distancing can last anywhere from months to years. Depending on your circumstances, a prolonged period of remote work might be a reality for the foreseeable future — your new normal might be that some teams, individuals, and functions will transition to 100% remote work. As such, organizations may be forced to continue investing in areas that promote more effective remote work. In these circumstances, the long-term effects of social isolation from colleagues will become very real. Think about ways to promote social interaction among employees and teams, either through virtual coffee hours, virtual team lunches, or small group meet-ups (when safe and appropriate).

4. Change Management

Just as being forced to work from home was a change, transitioning back to the office will be a change for your employees — one that demands adept change management. Whether you are expecting to keep part of your workforce working from home indefinitely or are in a position to safely start transitioning most of your workforce back to your office, defining your new normal and leading your employees through the consequent changes will be of the utmost importance.

There are several things you can do to ensure your employees are all on the same page, including:

Engage in frequent, consistent, and clear communication

There is no such thing as over-communication in our current circumstances. Many employees are anxious to know what their work will look like in the coming weeks and months so they can plan for the things that are within their control. Create a detailed communication plan for each phase, and communicate these plans, any progress that is being made, and your expectations for all functions, employees, and teams. Be sure to share the steps that are being taken to protect employees’ health and safety and provide a feedback channel for employees to share their concerns, issues, and unique risks.

Provide training and upskilling

When the overall health and safety of your employees depends on a collective behavior shift, training becomes absolutely critical. Ensure that each of your employees knows their responsibilities and understands how to discharge them. Provide focused training on safety protocols and guidelines that addresses key questions like what to do when you or someone you know is symptomatic. Additionally, unprecedented disruptions like the COVID-19 pandemic always result in changes in existing processes, job functions, roles, and responsibilities — however temporary or permanent. Make sure you are training and upskilling your employees where such changes are necessary so that they are prepared to perform as effectively as possible in this new reality. Provide training to managers to ensure they are prepared to support their employees in this unique situation.

Define a new culture

Use this moment of disruption to focus on building the culture you want to bring about at your organization. In tumultuous times, embracing a culture of transparency, self-disclosure, and collaboration can have a very real, tangible, positive impact on your people and your organization as a whole. Conversely, a fear-based, uncommunicative culture will likely prove detrimental for organizations and make their recovery from the effects of the pandemic all the more difficult. In drastic situations, even simple acts of goodwill, trust, and empathy will be rightly seen as heroic.

Navigating the Present While Preparing for the Future

At SEI, we are on the front lines working with clients from a variety of industries to address their diverse business challenges. We are mobilizing COVID-19 task forces and SWAT teams (special purpose teams assembled to resolve challenges that cannot be resolved through standard processes) to address rapidly evolving global, economic, and business paradigms and set a strong foundation for organizations as they transition employees back to physical workspaces.

The disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is personal — it has impacted many people’s families, friends, and loved ones in addition to their work, finances, and lifestyle. SEI is committed to helping our clients adapt to new business realities, but more importantly, we are committed to supporting people in every way we can. We are prepared to take on this challenge in our capacity as humans as much as in our capacity as professionals. We were founded on the ideas that people come first and collaboration drives excellence — never have these principles held more weight. Let this challenge unite us as we solve what we can control together. If there is anything we can do to help you, please reach out.

Learn more about how SEI is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key Resources for Organizations Planning Re-entries into Physical Workspaces

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

National Governors Association (NGA)

American Enterprise Institute (AEI)

Harvard University

Johns Hopkins University

Swecha Bhavana

Managing Principal

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