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6 considerations for planning a return to the office (even when you don’t know everything)

Throughout your planning, many factors may shift and evolve. Remain focused on gathering up-to-date information and listening to your employees.

6 considerations for planning a return to the office (even when you don’t know everything)
[Source photo: Mike_Kiev/iStock]

In the upcoming weeks, workplaces across the country will gradually consider how their organizations might return to the office. Preparation is vital for the health and safety of our people, and yet there is no playbook for how to deal with the evolving crisis of a global pandemic.

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We’ve worked from home successfully so far. Why would we want to put people at risk or perhaps take resources away from essential workers? For leaders accustomed to having all the answers, this is going to be new territory and an ever-evolving process as we reimagine what working in the office looks like.

For our company, we researched protocols, gathered resources, solicited staff feedback, and compared notes with other industry leaders as we began designing what our gradual return-to-office transition would look like.

Here are six critical considerations for guiding your return-to-office plan.

Keep your focus on health and safety

According to the most recent consumer research Harris Poll on COVID-19, the majority of Americans who typically work in an office are hesitant to return, and a quarter will wait to return until they feel safe. Employers need to instill confidence and reassurance that employee health and well-being are the main priorities as they return to the office. Ensure your teams know what is expected of them and what resources are available as they cope, adjust, and transition. This is not a flip of a switch—it’s a gradual reopening by state and by industry. Therefore, flexibility and communication over what next steps to consider are key. Everything remains fluid as we take into account important questions. The sourcing of protective supplies, such as masks, thermometers, and hand sanitizer, can’t take away from front-line workers; parents are left scrambling to figure out their children’s summer plans; and the safety of public transportation continues to be uncertain.

Define the new role of the office

What you used the office for previously may no longer be relevant for the future. Your focus shouldn’t be on trying to recreate the past, but rather on what’s next for your organization. What can you improve while working from an office? Avoid forfeiting all the improvements you made while working remotely. Upon your return to your workspace, not only will routines shift, but the physical space will likely change as well.

Consider what measures need to be taken to encourage and enforce proper social distancing between desks, workbenches, and common areas such as cafés, lobbies, and elevators. Shared spaces and equipment will require more rigorous cleaning and attention. Meanwhile, technology will remain a key component in keeping physical contact to a minimum while allowing communication and teamwork to thrive.

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Solicit input from your employees

It’s impossible to know the many barriers and fear your team is facing in returning to the office. Therefore, as the leader of your company, you must consider the countless changes unfolding in their personal lives. Many of your remote employees are simultaneously acting as caretakers, living with essential workers, or taking public transportation out of necessity. Gauge your employees’ comfort level in returning to the office setting by conducting a survey, including questions to gain a perspective on their lives.

From a recent survey at our agency, we learned that our employees’ top concerns are office safety, flexibility to stagger a return or to continue working from home, and communication of policies and procedures. As the feedback shows, leaders can learn a lot by asking their employees questions. Feedback can inform how your company can thoughtfully return to the workspace while communicating you have your staff’s best interests in mind.

Flexibility is vital

Moreover, empowering employees to decide when and how they want to return will be critical. At our agency, we are considering a three-phased approach.

  • Phase one: Open the office to individuals who have a business reason to be in the office to access equipment and space needed to be more effective.
  • Phase two: Welcome back those who need additional flexibility such as parents with young children, caregivers, and individuals with public transportation challenges.
  • Phase three: Welcome back those who are more vulnerable because of underlying health conditions or who are personally uncomfortable being around others until there is a vaccine or treatment.

This last phase means acknowledging not all employees will return to the office—which is okay. The past few months have taught us that not everyone needs to be in a physical office space to be productive.

Moreover, this new normal opens tremendous recruiting opportunities to attract talent from around the globe who will no longer need to relocate.

Don’t go it alone

Compare your notes with others, and accept we are all figuring it out along the way. Embracing a learning mindset, constantly asking questions, and reading thought leadership from industry associations, peers, colleagues, partners, and vendors—especially those a few steps ahead of us in China and Europe—are essential for informing decisions.

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For us, forming a return-to-office task force has proved a valuable strategy. Members share the responsibility of tracking state and federal updates as well as recommended protocols from trusted sources. The task force helps ensure we have representation from across the agency to consider differing viewpoints and varied factors. This eye to diversity and inclusion is key, since the crisis impacts each employee differently and makes representation across the workplace especially important.

Transparency is key

Last but not least, consistent communication is crucial. We’ve implemented a morning update and ongoing virtual town halls across our agency, as information and directives can change daily from the local to state governments.

In a time of increased uncertainty, remain transparent with updates and the reasoning behind decisions. Continue to recognize how employees may be feeling by soliciting and listening to their feedback. Work hard to empower your employees with the information they can use to remain healthy and for an eventual return to the office.

During this crisis, it is key to evaluate what you know, what you want to know, who will be impacted, and what is the best path to a positive outcome.

While this pandemic is shaping up to be more of a marathon than an one-time event, we will get through this difficult time together by keeping the health and well-being of  our employees at the center of our decision-making.


Christine Fruechte is the CEO of the Minneapolis creative agency Colle McVoy.

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