How to Return to the Office Successfully in the Days of Covid

Apr 1, 2021 | Business


Q2 Workplace Predictions

Leading indicators are pointing to a return to the workplace for many, but not all, American workers in 2021.  As of this writing, the numbers of active COVID-19 cases and deaths from the Coronavirus have dropped to pre-Thanksgiving surge levels.  As more Americans get their vaccines, and schools resume classroom learning, optimism grows that offices will re-open and working parents can get back to familiar routines.

Charts on Covid cases in the U.S.

Source: 04/01/2021


A Return to Normal?

In our 3 Fearless Predictions for Business in 2021 blog, we noted the evolving social contract between employer and employee. Business has learned to view remote workers differently during the pandemic. Traditional employers were forced to trust their employees would deliver while in isolation during the pandemic, and they were pleasantly surprised.

If workers are called back into the office in 2021, not everyone will return.  Progressive-thinking leaders and organizations will be okay with that. Organizations will leverage technology to drive performance in Q2 and beyond, rather than relying heavily on face-to-face interactions.

Now that the telecommuting genie is out of the bottle, top talent and recruiters are no longer geographically bound. As long as output from the individual employee is acceptable, location of their office isn’t as important.

Fayetteville and surrounding towns in northwest Arkansas are jumping on the trend of hiring outside geographic boundaries by offering $10,000 and a mountain bike to anyone willing to move to the region and work remotely. It is an initiative supported philanthropically by the Walton Family Foundation.

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, though.  Look for companies to pro-rate compensation packages for remote workers who leave large markets for lower cost-of-living states.


A Changing Landscape

After actualizing savings during 2020, Big Business may be satisfied to allow certain employees to continue their home office with access to an on-campus desk, conference room or boardroom as needed.

Running skyscrapers is an expensive proposition. With a smaller census of on-site workers, empty floors of commercial real estate may become cashflow property – or will they?

Even as the penetration rate of workers who are fully immunized against Covid grows, Five Key Behaviors to prevent the spread of infectious disease will dictate how the workplace footprint is arranged.

Yes, there will be fewer people in the office.  However, the need for socially distanced seating arrangements will require more area per person.  The workplace will be less dense, but it may still occupy almost the same amount of space as pre-Covid operations.

A return to the workplace in 2021 brings an enhanced focus on cleanliness. Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces will become an individual responsibility, and not held back for the janitorial staff.  HR managers will do well to get out in front of employee demands for HEPA filtration, PPE policies, cleaning supplies on-hand, and setting standards for overall building maintenance.

One surprise from the Covid pandemic saw the U.S. experience historically low levels of influenza in 2020. Precautions that were meant to control the Coronavirus – masks, handwashing, social distancing, isolating when sick – helped curb the flu this year, too.

Published estimates claim worker illness costs U.S. employers as much as $530 Billion annually. Imagine the savings if employees would be as health-conscious in 2021 and beyond as we all were in 2020. Enhanced hygiene during flu season could mean a huge difference every year.


A Time to Get Reacquainted

After a year of videoconferencing, the vast majority of the workforce who have been isolated long to get back to the workplace.

Humans are social creatures. We often do our best work collaboratively. Nothing beats face-to-face interactions when it comes to building camaraderie, reinforcing company culture, establishing trust, and facilitating communication as work gets handed off.

New hires in 2020 had an onboarding experience like none other. Their first day in the office will pick up, in real-world experience, where their theoretical learning left off during orientation. Give new employees and their counterparts a grace period to become acquainted and to work out office politics. While they have been co-workers for months, their contact to this point has always been task-oriented with time to retreat into personal space in-between calls. Watch to see how the team gels when they share spaces for 8 hours a day. The first day back will be just the beginning of a new phase of building trust for recent hires.

Do not underestimate what a year of pandemic and lockdown can do to the human psyche.  We have faced more than 12 months of vigilance against an invisible danger, digesting reports on mainstream and social media outlets that manipulate our fears. This heightened state has our collective amygdala – the “fight or flight” center of our brains – working overtime.

While it might ease the pressure to release pent-up frustrations at home, employers must caution their people against hostile exchanges in the workplace. Isolation has provided insulation between co-workers who hold differing worldviews. Best practice would be to remind returning staff of company policies regarding diversity and harassment.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space,” says Viktor Frankl. “And in that space lies our power to choose. And in our choice lies our growth and our freedom.” 

Encourage everyone in the office, when they feel the adrenaline rising during an exchange with a co-worker or customer, to pause. Be mindful of what’s at play within their own mind and choose to respond in a way that maintains harmony. A successful return to the workplace demands tact and cooperation between team members who disagree.


When You Need a Referee

When two or more parties are involved in a conflict that is jeopardizing your business, inclineHR’s meeting facilitators can step in to help think through and problem solve the situation with our “relationship first” approach. We ensure that all sides are heard and that any compromises reached actually meet the needs of all parties involved.

Contact us here to schedule a meeting facilitator.

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