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Leaders, here’s what to consider when navigating “return to work” options

Return to work

What does the “new normal” look like for your organisation?

Most of us could never have predicted the enormous impact COVID-19 would have on us personally and professionally. Almost overnight, workplace routines came to a halt and both employers and employees had to quickly adapt. There was a lot of trial and error with hiccups along the way for most organisations and traditional workplaces diminished.

We have heard the phrase “return to work” as many times as we have heard “the new normal”. But what does “the new normal” look like for workplaces? We are no longer living in a 9-5 world where work can only be done from the office and people have learnt they can be as productive, if not more so, from the home office.

With workplaces preparing for a staggered office return, there are several things to consider from an employer and employee point of view. A recent study commissioned by Slack found that from almost 10,000 workers surveyed, only 12% want to go back to working from the office on a full-time basis. Further, 72% of workers want to see a mix of both office and remote work become the “new norm” within their organisation. The newfound freedom and work-life balance that has come from the move to working from home, is something employees are not looking to entirely give up. Bringing the majority of the workforce back will create a unique set of challenges for each business. It is not as simple as flicking a switch and returning to the now seemingly distant ‘normal.’

This insight looks at how some organisations are approaching their return to the office and 4 key considerations for senior leaders.

How are organisations approaching return to the office?

Returning to the office has no one size fits all approach. Hence, the call on senior leaders to assess a variety of return-to-workplace options while combating the challenges of changing environments.

1. Hybrid Workplace Model

One of the most discussed models is the ‘Hybrid Workplace Model’ which supports the mix of remote working (working from either home or a café etc.) and office-based work. After almost 12 months of remote working, many organisations seem to be comfortable with maintaining a mix of arrangements to support their employees. Ensuring employees have ergonomically appropriate setups at home is more essential than ever if this model continues to flourish. Some organisations, such as IAG are strongly supporting this model through the provision of a one-off payment to each employee to ensure employees have an appropriate and comfortable work from home station.

2. Roster System

Similarly, other organisations are starting to operate on a ‘Roster System’ which allows workers to come in for a day or two per week in line with the evolving restrictions and density limits within their respective buildings. While this model allows for that connection and collaboration, it is important for employees to understand that the ‘office feel’ may not be the same as they were once used to, and what once was great about working in the office, might not be evident under the new restrictions. It is crucial to support your colleagues as they navigate the changing dynamics, and if things don’t seem to be working as well as you’d hoped, be accommodating and open to new ways.

3. Complete Remote

Some organisations are opting for a ‘Complete Remote’ future, leaving traditional workplaces in the past. Organisations with newfound remote routines such as NAB have stated smoother operations and the belief that their employees can work from anywhere. NAB is growing with this change and undergoing a large recruitment drive hiring 150 call centre employees who will work from home on a full-time basis. NAB’s digital move will allow for downsized office spaces but an increased need for investment in employees’ home office equipment and rising remote onboarding and training costs. The success of this work model will determine NAB’s future launch of remote-only across other regions.

4. Complete Office

Despite some employees settling into a “new normal”, some organisations are reluctant to completely abandon the office space and the benefits a ‘Complete Office’ model entails. But should they expect all employees to return to the office willingly? It’s hard to imagine workplaces will ever return to pre-pandemic times, but there are many arguments for retaining an office space.

A recent employee survey conducted by Glassdoor found that most employees miss the office benefits of in-person interactions, camaraderie, and communication of face-to-face work. Some employees are even distressed about getting ahead in their roles if their colleagues only know them online or as voices on the phone.

Faced with no communal office space and the consequential breakdown of colleague social bonds, organisations may face motivational, engagement and retention challenges. Senior leaders must consider both the benefits but also downfalls of isolating employees to a complete remote future.

Senior leaders: here is what you should consider

Moving forward, most workplaces will never operate the same again. The “new normal” will see employees having the ability to work whenever, wherever and there is a number of different factors to consider.

1. A short term and long-term plan

This is a fluid situation with the capacity to change overnight as we have seen. Having a plan for the short term (what should we do now?) and long term (what does our organisation look like in the future?) is paramount. Good planning will enable for a much smoother transition into the “new norm”.

2. Transparent, two-way communication

Communication around the situation needs to be transparent, consistent, and two-way. A lot of angst has been felt with COVID-19 and the ever-changing situation and keeping employees up to speed on how the workplace is responding helps to ease this. Checking in regularly with employees and how they are feeling is also critical and can support the planning for the new world. Listen to what they have to say and how they feel about the future workplace. What does it look like for them? What one person may feel comfortable with, another may not.

3. Safe and compliant offices

Promoting safe workplaces is of high importance. Ensuring every precaution is taken within the workplace in terms of social distancing and hygiene practices is an important part of the transition, not only having these in place but also actively promoting them to employees.

4. Return to home plan

On the flip side, employers should have a plan in place if the situation changes due to new COVID-19 cases, and be able to swiftly pivot back to permanent working from home arrangements with the necessary tools, resources and support for employees.

Finding the employee engagement sweet spot will not only help your organisation to survive, but to thrive in the new normal. Consulting with employees and understanding how they feel returning to the workplace is crucial. There is no “one size fits all approach” and flexibility is paramount. Surveys and focus groups can be helpful in gathering employee input and insight into individual preferences and remember it is all about finding the right fit for your organisation.

Emily Dimmack

Senior Consultant

Written by Emily Dimmack.

Emily supports organisations just like yours to connect with employees and support their wellbeing.

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