Bringing Employees Back to the Office Safely

Why Employee Listening is More Critical than Ever

Over the past few months, millions of employees have been working remotely to prevent the spread of Covid-19.  But many organizations are now making plans to bring their workforce back to the office.  In fact, some have already started.  According to a recent study conducted by SHRM, over half of US organizations plan to bring their employees back to the office by the end of July.  

Based on recent research, these plans may be met with mixed reactions.  Various data sources show that employees have a wide range of opinions and expectations about returning to the office.  One recent survey found that nearly three out of four employees are eager to return to work.  Another study found that almost half of workers want to continue staying home after quarantines end.  Based on our own field studies, just 23% of employees think now is the right time to bring employees back to the office.  And with case counts spiking in many communities, it’s likely that attitudes will fluctuate over the course of the summer.

These studies raise an important question: what’s the mindset of your workforce?  Are they eager to return, determined to stay home, or somewhere in between?  The only way to find out is to ask.  Most organizations know that employee listening is critical, particularly during a crisis.  But surprisingly few are.  Based on our latest research, just 38% of organizations have increased their focus on employee listening during the pandemic.  Given the disruptive nature of the current events, that’s a strategic mistake. 

If you are making return-to-office plans for your organization, now is a critical time to reach out to employees and ask for their feedback.  By engaging in a dialogue with your employees, you can help your organization in three critical ways.  First, you will gain valuable ideas and insights.  Your employees have probably been thinking about returning to office for a while now.  By asking about their concerns, challenges, and apprehensions, you can help build a return strategy tailored to their needs.  Second, listening builds trust, support, and psychological safety.  When employees know their voice matters, they are more likely to be engaged and committed.  Finally, collective conversations can be empowering, especially after months of remote work and social isolation.  Through dialogue, leaders, managers, and employees can learn from each other and build a stronger sense of community.

So what’s the best way to engage in a dialogue with your workforce about returning to the office?  We recommend gathering feedback at three critical points.

1. Pre-return: One of the best ways to prepare your employees for returning to the office is to start a conversation.  While your workforce is still remote, it is important to start a two-way dialogue with your employees to understand their perspectives.  This can be done through manager-led discussions, virtual town halls and listening sessions, or online focus groups.  During these discussions, we recommend sharing preliminary plans, soliciting feedback, surfacing concerns, and brainstorming solutions.  Framing these discussions as collaborative opportunities to design a safe return is critical.  The earlier you have these conversations the better; this will allow your organization to adjust plans based on feedback.  At a minimum, plan to conduct these conversations one to two months prior to return.  

2. The first month back in the office: Once employees have returned to the office, it will be important to gather feedback on a regular basis.  We recommend setting up a Covid-concerns hotline for employees to share their questions, reservations, and observations.  We also recommend conducting a series of brief pulse surveys, followed immediately by team discussions, over the course of the first month back in the office.  The purpose of these pulse surveys and discussions is to ensure that employees are having a safe experience across all aspects of their workday.  Are your employees comfortable with their commutes?  Are colleagues maintaining appropriate physical distancing?  Are workplace hygiene practices sufficient?  No matter how carefully you have planned, there will likely be unanticipated challenges that emerge when people return to work.  By creating feedback loops, your organizations can make real-time adjustments and increase workplace safety.     

3. One to two months after return: Most organizations are going through a period of great disruption.  The pandemic has set off a chain reaction of economic and societal changes that will forever reshape life both inside and outside of work.  To survive in a post-Covid world, many organizations will need to rethink critical aspects of their people strategy, redesigning everything from employee experiences and employee value propositions to physical work environments and operating structures.  The best way to ensure that these change efforts meet the needs of your workforce is to allow your employees to help define the future.  By engaging your employees in reflective conversations about how the pandemic has affected them, what they have learned about themselves, their colleagues, and their customers, and what they think the new normal will look like in upcoming years, you can start building a more resilient organization.  In the months that follow your return to the office, you can start these conversations through town halls, team discussions, and virtual focus groups.  Researchers have found that hope flourishes when employees have a compelling vision of the future, a clear sense of how to proceed toward that vision, and a collective sense of motivation and purpose.  Through these future-focused conversations, you can spark hope and help your employees envision a brighter tomorrow.   

Bringing your workforce back to the office is no small task, especially given the wide range of possible scenarios for the next phase of the pandemic.  Constant vigilance is critical.  By asking your employees about what they are observing and experiencing, you can identify issues before they become problems.  If you want to keep your workplace safe and productive in upcoming months, now is the time to implement an employee listening strategy that will help your decision-makers tap into the collective wisdom of your workforce.