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A framework for resuming office operations in the wake of COVID-19

Change happens everywhere and at all times, and transformation of the “workplace” has seemingly been on fast forward way before the pandemic. Workplace programs of the future (or at least the soon-to-be) were in the process of being created, tested, revised, and rolled out. Whether it be “where to work”, “what tools to use”, “how to collaborate best”, “where to find the talent”, etc., these questions and answers seemed to evolve daily.

As many of us find ourselves in the midst of widespread work-from-home directives, we should ask the following: has the world’s response to the pandemic forced us to (1) make these changes even faster, and (2) make changes that are completely different (even 180 degrees different) than what we were planning only weeks ago? If so, what will these look like when we all return to work? How long will we have to wait for the change? What will happen if what we want and/or need in that change is not delivered fast enough? What if we over-correct and make changes that simply don’t fit?

Jeff Goldman COO @ BeyondHQ

Jeff Goldman COO @ BeyondHQ

Having led real estate and workplace operations at Segment, DocuSign, UserTesting, and many others, I have had the good fortune to create, implement, and track numerous programs to enhance where and how people work.

To help companies think through all these and more implications, I will aim to invoke as much as I can from my past experience to write a series of posts on various aspects of workforce and workplace operations resuming and revamping in the wake of major change. Broadly speaking, each post will touch on one or more of the following topics that together contribute to the bedrock of any organizational change:

  1. Health: Safety and hygiene enhancements
  2. Space: Utilization, reorganization, workplace types and locations
  3. People and Process: Return to the Office, Remote work policies (HR guidance and support)
  4. Tools: IT infrastructure updates (reliability and security in a remote world)

This list is certainly not exhaustive, but does provide a framework through which to think about the changes in the workplace to come (whether by design, necessity, or even accident). Also, this is not an attempt to drill down to the most minute detail for each topic but rather a medium to start a discussion on these changes and how different companies can plan differently.

Finally, the plain and simple truth is that no one really knows exactly what should or will happen. All we can really do is agree on a framework for change, outline tactics for each step within, and ensure any revisions follow the one key question to be used before making any decision: what does the data tell us?

What follows is an attempt at the approach that we at BeyondHQ plan to adopt and espouse to customers.

This first post covers the components of a plan for returning to the office.

keep calm workplace improvements

Returning to the Office — Gotta Have a Plan

Though it might seem never-ending, this shelter in place will end and our collective efforts to get ahead and past our vulnerability towards this pandemic will bear fruit. Our wit, resolve, compassion, and ingenuity will help us overcome.

What should companies do when signs start pointing towards returning to the office? As simple as it sounds, workplace and workforce leaders should craft a plan and communicate it to the organization. In formulating and drafting the plan, we must consider a few fundamental questions:

  • Should everyone come back at once?
  • Would it be prudent to bring back employees in waves depending on the essential IN-office business needs?
  • How should the workplace be reorganized to enable appropriate social distancing?
  • What is the janitorial / cleaning plan?
  • How should remote work policies be updated or incorporated?
  • What can IT teams do to accommodate work from home?
  • How can the company avoid over-correcting and doing too much such that the workplace environment becomes too rigid? Is that even a bad thing?

Companies should seek guidance from health professionals on many of these questions and they should communicate this openly to company leaders and employees. Transparency and establishing proper expectations will be more important and essential to success now more than ever. Are all these questions and/or others on your list? What does your plan look like?

Among the topics referenced across the questions listed above, a few bear specific spotlight. I elaborate below.

Essential hygiene

At the very least, disinfecting gels and wipes along with face masks and similar products should be available in abundance as well as other preventative measures. This is minimal proof positive that the company wants their employees and everyone else within their space to feel safe and supported in the workplace. Information is the most valuable resource so publishing and posting best practices with regard to making yourself and your workspace clean and hygienic will also be key.

It’s interesting to note that in the past, it seemed to be important that janitorial staff be invisible as they did their job. Maybe the opposite of that is what’s required when we return….. a strong and visible showing to company employees, visitors, guests, clients, etc. that the workplace team and company leadership is taking responsibility for cleanliness, hygiene, sanitation very seriously.

Patience and flexibility

Companies should also do what they can to foster a sense of patience and flexibility with their employees. Employees should do the same with colleagues. We are human beings with feelings first and foremost and although we may not do everything the same with regard to making sure we disinfect/sanitize ourselves, I do believe we all act with good intent so let’s try to remember that when we come back to the office at a time when people are feeling anxious and uncertain.

When we get back, handshaking, hugging, touching of any kind may be a source of friction. I think we should do our best to not overreact but (clearly and compassionately) establish personal and professional boundaries so as to reduce the potential for conflict.

Let’s not be too quick to forget

We have seen reactive measures employed after other office-related emergencies, including fire, earthquake, even an active shooter. The impact of COVID-19 may be such that our memories are not as short as they have shown to be with other disasters and emergencies — not to say that any of those other crises are more or less devastating but just that people tend to go back to behavior very closely resembling that prior to the crisis. While swiftly forgetting past trauma is not a bad thing for the most part, retaining memories and lessons just might make the difference between progress and relapse, especially when it comes to distancing, hygiene, and self-protection from germs, bacteria, and viruses.

Mental Health Support

I believe that we will see a resurgence of companies offering Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) — specifically mental health support to deal with the stressors and anxiety that will most likely accompany the return to office movement. Some companies may even want to look into retaining at-call mental health professionals as there will undoubtedly be those employees who will struggle with returning to work (and those struggles will not involve just the fear of contracting an illness).

I will review this more on a later post, but company HR teams will be essential in assisting employees through the transition back to the office and getting acclimated to a new normal. Thorough and seamless partnerships between HR and Workplace teams will be an incredibly important factor in achieving this and something I will absolutely discuss in an upcoming post.

I hope these questions and topics serve to spur your own efforts at creating the right plan for your organization returning to work in the coming months. Over the coming weeks, we will also return to these concepts to delve into them in more detail.

In my next post, I will discuss how Coworking might change in light of COVID-19. It’s a good next topic as companies will continue to face the challenge of providing the right office space to their employees (considering both everything before and after this pandemic).