The Big Decision: Knowing the Right Time to Bring Employees Back into the Building – if Ever

Talk about a hot potato: Conversations among many companies throughout the United States center around the best and safest ways to call employees back to work, even though the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet behind us.

According to Consumer Reports, multiple federal agencies that include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), have issued guidance on how organizations can make coming back into the workplace safer for employees. However, these are mere suggestions – not guidelines. And not everyone is comfortable with their guidelines.

As such, employers need to figure out how, when and what is the best time to call their workforce back into the office – if ever. When talking to customers and colleagues about their return-to-work plans, it is clear employees and employers alike have valid concerns:

  • How do you go back to work when proven policies and procedures are still up in the air?
  • How many people can safely practice social distancing within meeting rooms?
  • Are companies going to adopt hoteling or are they going to want less space?
  • Should a normal 12-seat conference room only accommodate six people in the new normal and does that mean companies will need more or less real estate?

Less accountability – more community

Here is one prediction: The workplace will no longer be a place of accountability. Instead, it will be a place of community. One in which people will come for the camaraderie of being with their co-workers to get recharged to complete their tasks at hand – which, oftentimes, can be performed from a work-from-anywhere environment.

During the past few years, all the rage has been to design workspaces that lead to “collision” with co-workers. Think big, open spaces where the walls are knocked down and you can see and hear just about everyone else you work with. But COVID-19 has brought with it the need to re-engineer spaces away from ”collision” with co-workers – one in which social distancing is the new normal. What will become of close-together cubicles and shared spaces like kitchens is a mystery.

Can’t touch this

Concerns about spreading the coronavirus by touching common surfaces is likely to drive a greater prevalence in touchless, voice-activated environments – from technology to conference rooms. Voice, through products like Alexa, will be able to stand on its own as a modality of communication. This means that over the next several months, companies will work to figure out the best ways to appropriately clean to ensure every employee stays safe and healthy.

Welcome to work from home – perhaps for good

Prior to stay-at-home measures enacted to flatten the COVID-19 curve, many employees rarely – if ever – worked from their homes. The past two to three months have been trial by fire where millions of employees have worked from their dining room or kitchen tables, a makeshift office or elsewhere, often with children underfoot.

Therefore, here’s a second prediction: Working from the office and from home will have equal value. In the past, there was a focus on the in-room, in-office experience being the preference for many companies. And while it still might be an employers’ partiality, this just might not be possible.

We are going to see fewer cubicles and more conference rooms with fewer seats. People coming into the workplace – into a physical office environment – will be more of an outlier than the norm going forward. Employers will likely repurpose their real estate footprint for more collaboration rooms because there will be such a higher cost involved in getting people physically into the office.

Successes and failures are not only likely but OK

When calling the ranks back into the office, employers will need to be willing to change, to try new scenarios and understand that some things will be successful, and others will fail. There is no definitive, one-size-fits-all solution that will make everything normal again.

What we have experienced since March is that although our world has been turned upside down by COVID-19, the world didn’t end. We adapted.

In fact, many employees have found their productivity and engagement has actually gone up. And employers have been pleasantly surprised at what people could get done from home. Although forced into the situation, managers nor employees quickly discovered how capable they were in adjusting to remote working by adopting video conferencing and other remote tools to make it work. And work well.

Remote work has shined a light on people’s ability – or lack thereof – to successfully work from home.

Conference rooms will be important but different          

Here’s prediction number three: Conference rooms will become a more valuable asset than ever, but they will not be the same as we once knew. It’s doubtful in the near future that 30 people will be setting around a large table in a conference room together. Realistically, it’s likely half will be physically present, which means the other half will need the capabilities to join the conference remotely.

Is it a scary time? Perhaps. Is it an exciting time to see how we can combine in-office and remote working not only acceptable but successful? You bet. I’m excited for the challenges that lie ahead for us as we embark upon the new normal.