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The Hybrid Workforce Playbook | Part 3: Building a Return-to-Work Plan

April 9, 2021 ──── Joe Mullings
Digital Transition, Leadership

The Hybrid Workforce Playbook | Part 3: Building a Return-to-Work Plan

The Hybrid Workforce Playbook | Part 3: Building a Return-to-Work Plan
The COVID-19 pandemic posed unprecedented challenges — and for businesses, these challenges persist as we move back towards normality. The reality is that in a workforce permanently altered by the pandemic, there is no true return to normal.  

The new ways of working we adopted to keep people safe will not be going anywhere — they’re part of the new landscape of working. Instead, remote and distributed roles will be slowly and cautiously re-integrated with on-premise work. 

Exactly how and when that happens will look different for every company, department and team depending on their location, industry, and needs. That’s why we created The Hybrid Workforce Playbook: a bold, action-oriented guide to reimagining the future of work and building it into reality. 

In Part 3 of the Hybrid Workforce Playbook, we’ll explore how to make your employees’ safety, health, and comfort the foundation of your return-to-office plan. 

A Healthy and Sustainable Workplace

When crafting their plans to recall employees, many organizations want a simple, step-by-step process. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers or one-size-fits-all solutions here. The only constant in this process will be keeping your employees’ health and safety the absolute priority at all times. 

The first and most important step of returning to the office is knowing you can promise your team a safe environment. Because the specifics of COVID-friendly workplaces are determined by public health authorities, and vary greatly depending on location, we will not attempt to provide overly specific guidance here. 

But a physically safe and healthy work environment is just the beginning. Few organizations will bring all their on-premise workers back at once, and for many, the new hybrid model is here to stay. The implications of this radical change in our working lives on long-term mental health and cognitive agility needs to be taken seriously. 

Much of the current workforce has spent their entire adult lives in full-time, on-premise jobs. With five days and 40+ hours a week spent at work, it’s crucial to make an effort to maintain the relationships, positive habits, personal growth, and social interactions that historically centred around the office. 

The goal here is not to create panic or sound an alarm about the future of our industry. On the contrary, the new hybrid model has many benefits. However, this transition should be taken seriously for what it is — a profound life change for hundreds of thousands of workers. 

Here are a few steps to consider for a well-planned return to work. 

  1. Bring Leadership and Infrastructure Back First

It’s critical that executives and managers return to work as soon as they can safely do so. Leading the way demonstrates your leadership team’s confidence in your company’s safety protocols and their ability to protect employees. It also shows empathy and solidarity by making it clear that employees are not alone, and that management is beside them as they navigate an uncertain, or even frightening experience. In uncertain times like these, leadership is even more important than usual.

Following or concurrent with leadership will be the return of infrastructure-based roles, such as IT, Environmental Health and Safety, and those maintaining facilities such as for manufacturing. The return of these employees should happen naturally — many may be back at work already, as during the pandemic, it became obvious that businesses needed their presence to operate. 

  1. Adjust Expectations 

Leading a workplace through a global health emergency is a messy and demanding task. There will not be a single day when everything goes back to normal and “it’s all over” — even in a best-case scenario, a vaccine could take over a year to deploy, administer, and monitor for success. 

Leaders, managers, and teams need to manage their expectations, prepare for a slow, gradual return-to-work process, and stay sensitive to employees safety and mental health needs during this challenging time. 

  1. Prioritize Individuals

An empathetic, realistic, and sustainable return-to-work plan is guided by the people that make up your team. Avoid imposing sweeping plans that mandate people back to work without considering their individual situations, risk factors, and needs. 

Some employees may be especially vulnerable to infection, and should not be rushed to return to the office. Others may be eager to leave remote work behind, but have new caregiving responsibilities that make it difficult or impossible for them to do so. Consider also who is in each employee’s closest network. Are they in regular contact with children, elderly people, or those with pre-existing conditions? How will those people be impacted by the employee’s return to work? For example, coming back to the office could force a team member to stop providing care to an ill or elderly relative.

Communication, Cooperation, and Dialogue

Sensitivity to these individual situations is imperative to a plan that respects your team’s health, safety, and workplace satisfaction. Be proactive about initiating safe, open conversations with your team and truly listen to what they share, so that you can understand who is keen to return, and who is more hesitant. 

Acknowledge that this period will not be easy, despite everyone’s careful efforts. Prioritize communication, patience, understanding in all your actions, and you can emerge from the pandemic with a team that’s even stronger, more compassionate, and more unified than they were before. 

Communication is critical to your return-to-office plan — but its importance will not diminish as we move forward into our new reality. In Part 5 of the Hybrid Workforce Playbook, we’ll delve into how this hybrid model will create entirely new communication needs.