Organizations will need to execute thoughtful measures when managing the return to the office.
By Gretchen Alarcon
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the global workforce in ways that could have never been expected. HR professionals have been forced to take center stage, lead their organizations through unexpected changes, and define what’s next. But the hard work is not over yet.
As cities, states, and countries continue the battle against the pandemic, the next step—which is already underway for some organizations—is reopening the economy and the workforce. But what is HR’s role at this stage? How can HR ensure employee safety when bringing their workforce back to the office? What tools should they have in place? And how should HR prepare now for similarly disruptive events in the future?
While the reopening process will vary between industry, individual business, and location, every HR department will have one goal in common: Keep employees safe, confident, and comfortable in a socially distant workplace.
Here are a few key strategies HR professionals should consider to ensure a smooth transition into this new state of normal at work.
1. Prioritize employee safety and confidence. When organizations begin to bring their workforce back into traditional office spaces, they are sure to encounter hesitation, anxiety, and even fear from employees. It’s up to HR to ease this anxiety and instill a sense of comfort among their teams.
Before reopening offices or even communicating plans to do so, it’s important to check in with employees. Take a pulse on the current state of the workforce by asking:
- How are the employees feeling?
- What are their biggest concerns?
- How many will want to come back to the office?
Employees will want to know that their health and safety is the number one priority. HR will need to clearly communicate this, along with the “how” and “what” details:
- How will the company ensure a clean and healthy workplace?
- What specific guidelines or new processes are being implemented to prioritize employee safety?
HR should communicate plans for testing and clear guidelines for the workspace, such as the policy on staying home when experiencing symptoms. This is not only important from a policy standpoint, but it’s also an opportunity for HR to communicate the desired culture and tone of their workforce. The more information employees receive on how they will be taken care of, the more confidence they will have in returning to work.
2. Provide quick access to information and resources. Employee communication is key in a crisis. But with a host of new priorities and challenges to solve, HR professionals don’t have all the time in the world to continuously feed information. This is where technology can help.
In order to ensure that employees have quick and easy access to information and resources, HR departments should secure the right technology. Tools like self-service software or digital assistants can help provide fast answers to frequently asked questions and direction to additional resources. Important information to share includes company guidelines or statements around reopening plans, the latest updates to office policies, new health and safety processes, and city and government updates to location-specific restrictions.
The benefits of providing direct and easy access to this kind of information are two-fold: First, it will give employees more control and direct attention by answering some of their most pressing questions quickly. And second, it will free up time that HR professionals would spend answering repetitive questions, allowing them to focus on more strategic initiatives for the business.
3. Promote office safety and incident reporting. Once employees do begin to come back to the workplace, policies around office cleanliness are going to be more important than ever before. HR departments should work with the facilities teams to ensure clear and communicated guidelines around things like conference room cleaning, hand sanitizer access, common area restrictions, and the cleaning of frequently touched surfaces like door handles or countertops. Because employees have been in their own homes and in control of their own cleaning for weeks if not months, they will want peace of mind that there is a high degree of cleanliness and safety at work as well.
Additionally, HR should provide clear guidelines around employees’ role in maintaining a safe office space. Organizations can implement a specific process or use available technology for employees to report incidents that need attention. This can help when a conference room has not been cleaned or if a certain area is running out of hand sanitizer. When employees have a clear understanding of how to report these incidents, HR can have greater visibility into areas of the office that need attention and can work to resolve them in a more immediate fashion. Also, giving employees the ability to flag when they think there is a risk will provide a stronger sense of control in a time of uncertainty.
4. Adapt to new team structures. It will be important to remember that when employees begin to return to the workplace, it will be far from the “normal” that many are used to. Some employees will want to come back for that sense of collaboration and team culture, while others may prefer the productivity and solitary environment of working from home. In fact, a Gartner study found that 41 percent of employees are likely to work remotely at least some of the time post-pandemic.
HR will need to adapt to more of a mixed workforce than they’ve ever seen. Organizations will need to have clear and communicated guidelines for workplace flexibility and will need to be prepared to manage a workforce of dispersed employees. This means ensuring the right telecommunications tools are in place, having clear collaboration guidelines, and an overall view of what a partially—or in some cases, mostly—remote culture will look like for their organization long-term.
5. Prepare for “Plan B.” Having gone through at least the first phase of this pandemic already, HR professionals need to have a “Plan B” in place. What happens if somebody in the office reports testing positive or if city, state, or local governments revert back to a shelter-in-place situation? How will HR notify employees? How will the organization execute a fluid, calm, and organized process?
The uncertainty of this global virus is something every organization and HR professional needs to plan for. While the world can hope these next phases of reopening will lead the global workforce into a new state of normalcy, the reality of the future is still unknown. But based on the past few months of lessons learned, the HR community should be as prepared as possible for whatever is to come.
Gretchen Alarcon is group vice president of human capital management strategy for Oracle.