People working together in an open office
PHOTO: Adobe

The leading companies already know what a return to the office will look like. Is yours one of them? Recent research found that 40% of businesses that shifted to remote work in March 2020 were planning to recall their employees to the office around March 2021.

But just because businesses will recall their workers doesn’t mean they have a good plan (or any plan at all) for doing so. If your business isn’t looking past the next quarter, your HR team needs to step up and start having those conversations with your senior leaders. A successful office reopening strategy will require close collaboration between senior leaders and HR, along with a communications strategy that ensures all employees know how to adapt appropriately.

Of Course, You Need a Strategy

Innovative strategies will be necessary for the office to open back up without COVID cases spiking when it does. Human resource teams need to work closely with senior leaders, office managers, internal communications teams, and others to reinvision a total return to the office. Compliance isn’t optional — HR must be up to date with the latest state and federal regulations and guidelines around COVID-19. They’ll need to consider both senior leaders’ wants and needs (who might be eager to gather everyone in the same place again) and mid-level and line-level workers (who may have home situations or obligations that will affect their return to the office).

Because the pandemic was unprecedented in recent memory, HR leaders emerged as advocates for employees’ physical health and mental well-being. As HR leaders craft new requirements, they should keep their new mission in mind. Keeping in touch with employees through frequent communications channels about upcoming plans will help reduce anxiety about returning to the office.

Do All Employees Want To Return to the Office? Really? Are You Sure?

HR leaders need to understand how returning to the office will affect employee engagement levels and start having those conversations with their virtual teams. For those employees who have struggled to work from home, going back into the office might raise their engagement as they can better handle work from the office. (Research suggests that younger workers especially have found remote work challenging.) However, if some workers don’t want to return and businesses force the issue, employee engagement might drop (which could lead to employees leaving for other jobs in extreme cases).

The easiest way to find out if employees want to work in the office again is to simply ask. Whether through poll questions on the intranet feed or direct one-on-one chats, employees need to feel their concerns are heard and their wishes respected. Maintaining a positive employee experience will be crucial as the pandemic recedes. The global pandemic subjected nearly everyone in the world to a humanitarian crisis. HR leaders should implement and communicate any return to the office plans with this in mind.

Don’t Go Back To Neglecting Your Offsite Workers

Even when the pandemic subsides, there will still be some workers who will either remain fully remote or have a hybrid working situation (primarily remote, with a few days in the office). Gartner research says that 48% of office workers intend to remain fully remote after the pandemic — compared to 30% of remote workers before the pandemic.

This change means the workplace culture will change again — from its initial form pre-pandemic, through the pandemic work culture to its next form as the pandemic recedes. HR leaders should recognize the need to create an inclusive culture that includes all workers — not just those in the office. Remote and hybrid workers are more likely to feel left out of company culture. HR leaders must ensure that doesn’t happen once people are back in the office.

Conclusion

While articles and news reports have thrown around terms like “the new normal” and “a return to normal” almost constantly for the past year, HR leaders should recognize that normal will look very different from how it looked in early 2020. The look and feel of the office will change. Workers may return to the office or not. Engagement levels will fluctuate. Work cultures will have grown and changed after months of remote work. When planning for a return to the office, HR and other senior leaders need to consider all these things and more while they develop a strategy and communicate policy changes to employees.

HR leaders have performed extraordinarily during the pandemic, pivoting as often as possible to address a global pandemic’s unforeseen effects. As the world decides over the next few months what normal will look like, it will test HR leaders’ strength. Returning to the office won’t be like opening up a time capsule — people, processes, and culture have all changed over the past year. By crafting employee-centric policies and delivering thoughtful communication, HR will be able to keep workers informed as businesses slowly return to in-person work.

See how Simpplr can improve your return-to-work communications at simpplr.com.