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How To Prepare Your Workers for a Return to the Office

By Jennifer Crump | Last updated: May 11, 2021
Key Takeaways

Given how long employees have spent working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a return to the office will come with many challenges — here are a few tips to ease the transition.

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In a recent PWC survey, 75% of executives anticipated that at least half of their office employees would be back in the office by July 2021. Their staff didn’t share that optimism. Far fewer employees — just 61% — expect to be back in the office by July 2021. In fact, over half of employees have would prefer to continue to work at least three days each week remotely.

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This disconnect between the expectations of executives and workers will make the return to the office more challenging, but there are things you can do to ease the transition. Here are some tips for preparing your workforce for a return to the office.

Have a Plan In Place

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that preparation matters. This is also true of the return to the office. Don’t assume that everything will be the same as it was pre-pandemic. There will be new factors at play. Everyone has had different experiences with remote work and in their personal lives. Some will be nervous about safety and the return to work, while others may be dismissive or even aggressive about new protocols designed to keep them safe.

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The key is to have a clear and consistent plan. The return-to-work plan should include safety protocols that will be put in place as well as any additional cleaning enhancements you have arranged before the return and once everyone is back at work. First-day return to work protocol should be clear. Will there be a temperature check? Will employees have to do a self-assessment? Where will you be locating hand sanitizer? Will you provide masks? Are they mandatory or optional? What will this look like daily going forward? Make sure that all members of your team know what to expect.

Distribute a clear first-day schedule that includes time for team meetings and some downtime for catching up. A staggered entry is also a good idea. In some workplaces, a phased re-entry makes sense where specific groups of workers re-enter each week. This approach can help eliminate some safety concerns and provides a somewhat more orderly re-entry. Make sure managers effectively communicate re-entry times to their teams.

Finally, your re-entry plan should include the protocols for a return to remote work, should the need arise. Of course, it may never happen, and hopefully will not. However, having a clear plan for returning to remote work if it does become necessary makes good business sense. It also fosters faith in your re-entry plan. Workers will know you’ve got them covered, no matter what happens next.

Listen to Your Workers

Before the return to the office, reach out to your workers. You can do this via a channel on Slack or through managers and team meetings. Ask them for their opinions, suggestions and concerns. This has a two-fold purpose. First, it helps you address any issues that arise. However, it also engages your workers and gives them some feeling of control over their return. It may also provide you with some additional ideas for the game plan for their return.

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Gather a list of concerns and address as many as possible in the return-to-work plan. Consider creating and distributing an FAQ that answers worker questions about their return to work. Remind managers to keep the channels of communication open as the process continues.

Over Communicate

While normally you don't want to unnecessarily fill employees' inboxes with endless reminders and e-mails, this is the one time when you really cannot have enough communication with your staff. Engage managers and team leaders to speak directly to staff and utilize other information channels regularly. Inform workers early and often about your return-to-work plan. Keep modifications to a minimum. If anything does have to change, make sure your workers know and explain the reason for the change of plans.

Adjustments to a plan may be unavoidable, but it’s important to remember that people have had to deal with many changes, particularly concerning regulations and protocols, over the last year. This may negatively influence their reaction to shifts in safety policies or return to work plans. Communicating both the what and the why can help mitigate this negativity and explain why certain decisions were made.

Discourage Micromanaging

Though remote work can have its own challenges, many workers have enjoyed the increased freedom and flexibility in their schedules. Many managers, on the other hand, have been struggling to manage effectively from a distance. Returning to the more structured environment of the office will likely create new challenges for both.

Flexible scheduling will be even more critical in the new normal for your office. Where possible and practical, allow for this flexibility and encourage your managers to do the same. Your staff may want and expect more freedoms in the office after a year of working under mostly their own rules.

Re-Establish Your Corporate Culture

To help transition staff back to the workplace, consider doing some work to realign people with your core business values. Things have changed, and attitudes have changed, but your business hasn’t. Reminding your people of how and why you do what you do makes sense.

It’s also a good idea to plan activities that reinforce the underpinnings of your corporate culture. Many of these have fallen by the wayside as employees moved to remote work. It won’t take workers long to readapt to your corporate culture if they’re provided with early and frequent opportunities to do so.

Be Proactive

The key to preparing your workers for a return to the office is being proactive. That means having a plan and communicating it. It also means soliciting ongoing feedback and suggestions from staff.

However, understanding that workers have experienced this pandemic very differently is critical too. This should inform your preparations for your return and the mental and emotional support you provide going forward. Team check-ins should continue even after the return to work.

Prepare Your Team For Success

You can’t control whether the return to the office is anticipated or dreaded, or how individuals are making adjustments in their own lives and schedules to accommodate the return. However, with some preparation and a solid plan, you can control the success of your workers’ return by giving them all the tools they need, and empowering them to make their voices heard.

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Written by Jennifer Crump

Profile Picture of Jennifer Crump

Jennifer Crump is a former freelance journalist and author and now full-time content writer and strategist. She contributes to magazines and blogs throughout North America on issues related to business, training, financing and workplace safety.


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