At the beginning of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many left their offices and began working from home. Now, some organizations consider how to bring staff back onsite. However, it is a complicated decision made challenging as the pandemic constantly evolves.

Although not all managers are directly responsible for making the call to the office, they may be asked to weigh in. They will need to be prepared to address staff members’ questions and concerns and provide consistent, transparent communication.

Time and policy

As McCreery’s team grappled with the pandemic’s uncertainty, the strain of social distancing, and the challenges of working remotely full time, McCreery wanted to provide certainty so she developed a three-month timeline. In March, she set a reopening date for May, subject to review several weeks in advance. After the review, she extended remote work through August and plans to review the reopening date on an on-going basis. The review process and timeline are regularly communicated to staff so they understand expectations and can prepare. Her team shifted group, individual one-on-one, and client meetings to a remote environment with 100% success.  

“We wanted to take uncertainty out of the equation for our team. We have the infrastructure to work remotely so we can continue to do what we do best,” McCreery says. “We also wanted to communicate the plan on a two- or three-month timeline. What we didn’t want to do is change it every few weeks.”

When looking at reopening dates, organizations should also strive to be aligned with their state’s recommendations, McCreery adds. It is often best to err on the side of caution rather than making a hasty decision.

Along with reopening timelines, organizations also need to plan for education and enforcement if new policies are in effect—even if the policies are temporary. If an organization is planning to bring staff back to the office, it’s paramount that it consider what needs to be changed including the layout and configuration of the office space, the use of common areas such as kitchens and meeting rooms, and the use of personal protective equipment, McCreery says.

Fielding questions

Managers also face staff members’ questions and concerns about returning. While some staff members may be eager to return, others may have concerns related to their own or a family member’s specific health risks or their ability to function under new office requirements. Managers need to know how to address these concerns and ensure staff are safe and able to perform well.

Organizations should provide managers with a series of FAQs to answer common questions, McCreery says. However, managers and organizations should be flexible.

“When we’re asking people to come back to work, we’re going to have to figure out for each department what that looks like,” she says. “Do I need to re-engineer this department for appropriate social distancing? Are there accommodations I need to make for certain employees?”

If a team member has concerns about returning to the office, managers should consult with HR, she advises. It may not be appropriate, or permitted from a legal standpoint, to compel a staffer to return.

“You need to have good guidance from HR and from your legal team on what’s appropriate for you to say and what’s not,” McCreery says. “This is where smaller organizations need to make sure they have strong partnerships. If they do not already, they need to make sure they have attorneys advising them.

Another group of team members may simply prefer to work from home and might choose to seek another job that will permit that, McCreery adds. Flexibility is the key to retention if that is an option for your organization. If the organization is not willing to continue to allow them work from home, managers should be prepared to work with those individuals on transition plans.

Setting priorities

Navigating the return to the office can feel daunting for managers. While managers may have many of the same questions and concerns as their staff, they may also be in a position to advocate for their department.

When called on to make or weigh in on decisions, safety should be their top priority, McCreery says. Consider whether the disruption of bringing staff back to the office sooner rather than later will be worth it. If staff have settled into remote work and are keeping up productivity and quality, it may be best to continue.

Employees with young children like Larissa Dollar at Indiana University Health, are enjoying their remote work arrangements and hope to see them continue.

“I have a wonderful job that allows me to work from anywhere, so I take my computer outside and watch my daughter play,” says Dollar. “There is so much you miss as a working parent and this has given me some of that back. It has its challenges. Conference calls can get very interesting, but for the most part I like this new normal. I’ll hold onto it as long as I can.” 

Seeing people thrive during COVID while working at home shows we can pivot to be there for our families when it matters most while balancing a career.

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