Preparing Employees to Return to Work: A New Playbook
COVID-19 is not the first pandemic of the century … but it is the first one to require a new employee playbook.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first viral pandemic in the 21st century; that distinction goes to the 2009–2010 H1N1 influenza pandemic. However, these two pandemics differ sharply. An H1N1 vaccine was approved in September 2009, five months after the first case was reported. In contrast, according to the director of the United States' National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NAIAD), a COVID-19 vaccine is likely more than a year away. COVID-19 is the first pandemic of the 21st century expected to have a long-term, transformative impact on the global economy and the world of work.
Table Of Contents
This pandemic has given rise to many work-related “firsts”:
- Global business disruption/closures. Across the world, businesses have been forced to drastically disrupt, and in some cases, completely halt regular business operations.
- A new breed of essential worker-heroes. Employees in direct customer-contact jobs that were previously considered to be routine have now become essential front-line workers who are meeting the basic human needs of their neighbors. For the first time, considerations of physical risk are part of their daily work lives.
- More employees working from home. Most employees are being directed to work from home (even in organizations where working from home was previously taboo).
- New work-from-home challenges. Employees who are suddenly working from home are facing the unprecedented challenge of working while simultaneously caring for children and elders residing in the same home.
- Leaders facing unenviable decisions about when and how to bring employees back to “regular” work environments. Some employers will be forced to bring a number of employees back to their regular work environments (e.g., offices and direct customer-contact roles) before a COVID-19 vaccine is available.
Employees returning to their regular work environments will need new kinds of support not previously considered or provided. This support will take many different forms but will likely fall into the following three categories:
- Personal support—related to the safety and well-being of employees, among other things
- Job support—related to the nature of the work itself, work location, pay, supervision/management, work teams, etc.
- Strategic alignment—related to the clarity of business direction, change management, customer focus, etc.
In light of the workforce firsts named above, below are a few new playbook rules to consider in the days to come.
Playbook Rule #1: Personal support must take precedence over everything else.
Employees returning to their regular work environments will be conflicted about their personal safety concerns, even though they may feel lucky to have a job. Employers must put personal safety concerns front and center, and address them openly with employees before asking them to return to the regular work environment. (Tweet this!) While employees will also be concerned about work-related factors, those needs will be secondary to their granular safety concerns, such as:
- What actions have you taken to protect my personal safety? Questions will relate to things like: providing masks, gloves, and disinfectant wipes; using/cleaning work equipment; controlling activity in common areas like restrooms and break rooms; making arrangements for meals since local restaurants may be closed, etc.
- What new cleaning protocols have been defined for work tools, workspaces, and common areas?
- What arrangements have been made to facilitate physical distancing, such as staggering work team schedules?
- What arrangements have been made for mental health support?
- What provisions have you made for me to obtain health care if I should become ill with COVID-19?
- What provisions have you made for a quarantine location so I do not have to go home and put my family at risk if I get sick?
Playbook Rule #2: Address each employee’s job-related concerns.
Only after personal safety needs have been addressed will employees allow the conversation to shift to personal job-related concerns, such as:
- Will my job tasks be changing?
- Will my work hours be changing?
- Will I have a different supervisor?
- Will my work location be different?
- Will I be part of a different team?
- And for those who have worked from home for the first time during this pandemic, many may ask, “May I continue to work from home, since I am as effective in supporting my customers this way as I am in the regular work environment?”
Playbook Rule #3: Address employees’ role in sustaining healthy business operations.
After personal safety and job-related concerns have been addressed, employers can move to talking about aligning employees to the organization’s strategic needs. Focus on explaining these topics:
- How business priorities have changed
- Anticipated impact on employees
- Anticipated impact on customers and a plan for helping customers adapt
- Plan for ongoing communication during the pandemic
- How we will get/share customer feedback so we know what is working and what is not
Providing personal support for employees is the first step on the road ahead. The next chapter outlines what you can do to help workers feel safe, and adapt to change.
Rule #1: The Return To Work: Personal Needs Of The Employee
While employees will undoubtedly look forward to returning to work, they may find they are not stepping into the same environment as before. For some, this could mean a gradual return with fewer hours than expected. For others, returning to work may include accepting different roles and responsibilities in order to meet evolving business needs. These changes can cause anxiety and potentially lead to a reduction in productivity, morale, or even trust in the organization. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding an employee’s return, it will be critical for organizations to proactively communicate what changes constitute the “new normal” and to ensure that employees understand how they will be impacted. (Tweet this!) As you begin to welcome your employees back, consider how you can best do the following:
1. Provide support.
Where job roles or responsibilities have changed, or significant time has passed, companies may need to offer training or mentoring to help employees adapt to the new processes, tools, and systems they will need to be successful. Managers should also ensure that employees have a clear understanding of any new performance expectations that will accompany their return.
As companies hire employees back, they should carefully articulate any changes in pay, retirement savings, and benefits that may result from fewer hours or other cost-saving measures. When employees cannot immediately enjoy the same perks as before, companies should help them navigate any changes in their total rewards program, and help them plan accordingly.
2. Demonstrate empathy and understanding.
The return to work may not be seamless for everyone; this makes it particularly important for leaders to show empathy and offer encouragement as employees become reacquainted with their surroundings. Getting into a routine may take time. Some longtime employees may encounter a learning curve in their daily work tasks (similar to that experienced by new hires), while others will need to adapt to changes in their team or reporting structure.
3. Keep employees connected.
The tools and technology we all embraced in support of working remotely are likely here to stay. As employees return to work amidst the ongoing requirements of social distancing and school closings, companies will need to ensure that they remain nimble and are, wherever possible, allowing their workforce to be productive at the time and place of their choosing. This may put pressure on organizations to accelerate the integration of collaborative software, while ensuring that employees receive the necessary training and support to use these tools effectively. This will not only help employees stay connected, but also allow them to more seamlessly integrate into their post-pandemic job roles.
Where work requires being physically present, companies will need to evolve their workplace safety practices from accident mitigation to virus protection. This may include familiarizing teams with new safety practices like wiping down workstations, staggering breaks, or even adjusting the physical spaces where people work and meet. As long as any risks associated with COVID-19 persist, employees will need to understand how best to navigate their new surroundings and to protect one another.
4. Get people excited about the future again.
As employees return to work, it will be critical for leaders to once again convey a compelling vision of the future that gives employees a sense of where the organization is heading and the role that they will continue to play in shaping its growth. Being laid off or furloughed can be a traumatic event, making it all the more critical that leaders work to “fire-up” and motivate employees regarding the steps the organization is taking to be successful.
5. Show appreciation for all that employees have gone through.
Companies should show appreciation for the sacrifices that employees have made and continue to make on this journey. As we reflect on the pandemic, it will be important to recognize the resilience of our workforce, whose enduring commitment to the organization will ensure that it prospers once again.
Rule #2: The Return To Work: Tactical Needs Of The Employee
While addressing safety needs is fundamental to inviting employees to be productive, addressing job-related concerns is the next step, as it determines where their energy and attention will be focused. If safety concerns are table stakes, job-related concerns are the most critical aspect of the employee’s work experience. What, exactly, will employees be asked to do as we settle in for the “next normal”?
As employees begin to craft some semblance of a normal workday, they will likely feel as though they are operating in a fog—that their sense of the way forward is obscured. It’s one thing to have come back to more regular working conditions, but how can we ask employees to help us get back on track and move full speed ahead when they can’t see what that means for them?
Find Your Footing
Give employees some understanding of their own environment. Where will they be working? Is their location different? In the upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic, many offices have closed, leaving employees working remotely; or maybe the traveling employee is now coming into an office. Other offices have been redesigned to accommodate new safety protocols or staff changes. Some employees might be transitioned to another location to align with their function or staffing needs. The list goes on, and it is likely that, as employees step back into their work lives, their immediate environment will be somewhat different.
Help employees adjust by communicating changes to their location ahead of time. Anticipate questions such as: ”Where do I need to be?” “Who will help me find what I need?” “Where did the good printer go?” Have an expert or thorough guide resource available so employees can reach out if they need help navigating any challenges in their new environment. Solutions can also be as simple as posting signs if office landmarks or policies have moved or changed.
If employees previously worked in close proximity to their teams, offer new ways to communicate and collaborate. Virtual meetings are more and more popular and can be quickly adopted. Offer ways for employees to feel connected to each other, not only to facilitate productivity, but also to help reduce the shock of a changed work environment.
In some circumstances, the change is that the “next normal” looks the same as the break from normal, meaning some employees may choose (or be required) to continue working from home, which is different from how they were working before the pandemic. Work closely with these employees as they learn to process their new workspace. Ensure that they have what they need and set clear expectations for everything from when they sign on in the morning, to office attire, to virtual meetings, to how they collaborate and deliver results. Make sure these expectations are clear and agreed upon by both the employees and their supervisors.
Take Your Time
In many cases, the negative impact of a different working environment may be compounded by adjusted hours; many employees might suddenly find themselves working at different times of the day than they are accustomed to. This could be due to children's schedules (or a spouse’s) they need to work around, adjusted shift schedules to provide a safer work space, or a reduction in staff that requires them to connect with their team on the other side of the globe when they’d rather be asleep. Employees may also find their tasks are different, and require them to start earlier and end later to accommodate the extensive safety protocols now in place.
Employers need to help employees flex into these new timetables. Offer as much flexibility or as many structured options as possible, and technology solutions for those needing to effectively cooperate asynchronously. Do what you can to recognize the extra effort it takes for employees to suddenly reorganize their lives around a new schedule. Helping employees find work-life balance will play an important part in productivity and engagement in the next normal.
Take Care Of Each Other
Personnel may have shifted due to the pandemic. Teams may be smaller or larger. Teams may now be staggered across shifts or locations to adhere to distancing guidelines or convenience. Whatever the reasons, many employees may find themselves working with smaller, new, or different teams than they did a few months ago. Help employees come together quickly to get to know each other and practice working together in their new environment. It is now more important than ever that employees know they can trust each other (with both their safety and performance) to be effective.
Leadership changes are also a likely reality for many employees. For employees returning to a more regular work environment with a new leader, help them feel confident they can still be heard and supported. If possible, alert employees to any changes in leadership before they return, and provide a familiar point of contact to document any questions or concerns if needed.
Ensure messaging is consistent and employees can feel safe giving feedback and asking questions. In addition, new leaders should strive to quickly learn the strengths and needs of their teams, as customer (internal and external) demands have also likely shifted. Agility will enable their teams to be more resilient in the face of these challenges.
Get To Work
As the fog of the new working environment settles and we can now see more clearly, ensure that employees have clarity around their tasks and work responsibilities. Help them understand what might be the same or different from before the COVID-19 changes—especially in terms of output expected (both quality and quantity) and how work gets done (tolerance for mistakes, speed, methodology). Work to align and openly agree to expectations and keep checking in. Make a plan to track skill development and learning over time and provide the right guidance/support opportunities to help employees continue to improve.
As with any period of dramatic change, acknowledge that things are different now, and that changes may have impacted employees personally. Listen to employees. Learn what they need to be effective today, and how to work together to build confidence in their personal futures and the successful future of the company.
Rule #3: Address Employees’ Roles In Sustaining Healthy Business Operations
This isn’t the first time organizations have had to pivot—to reevaluate their business model, their people strategy, their customers’ needs, or their competitive advantage. It’s not even the first time large-scale change has been forced across multiple industries and geographies (think revolutionary changes such as the opening of the railroads or the ubiquitous use of personal computers and AI). However, this is the first time such changes are being driven by a literal force of nature—one that has blown businesses off their original course and onto a new path. As we all try to pick up the pieces and reimagine how to fit them together into a modified picture, a new challenge emerges: How do we define and project a salient strategy? How do we get our hard-working talent into alignment with our new way forward?
Mapping our next steps accurately is crucial to taking control of the journey. In the early days of embarking on a new course, focus on informing your strategy with evidence that will allow you to make data-driven decisions and maneuver to the best positions.
There are three key areas where you need data to accurately understand your current state and plan your move-forward strategy:
- Implications for business priorities
- Impact on employees
- Impact on customers
In Chapters 1 and 2, we discussed the baseline needs required for employees to functionally return to a more regular work environment (assurances of personal safety, clear understanding of reporting structure) or something similar. In this chapter, we address the fact that, as employees look forward to settling into their next normal, they will need to know how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed business priorities and what impact this will have on their own work experience and expectations.
Implications For Business Priorities
Many industries have experienced significant impacts and trauma as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. If the pandemic and its lingering aftermath have forced you to make changes to your business priorities and strategy, take the necessary time to explain these changes to your workforce. Be as clear as you can about how your organization has performed during the pandemic crisis and what you plan to do to be prosperous as you move forward. If you are unable to define or connect some of the dots at the current time, that is okay. Practice being transparent about what is yet unknown or undecided, and let employees know you are working on solutions. You might even solicit their ideas and feedback; employee suggestions can help the organization to be innovative and productive through this period of uncertainty.
Impact On Employees
While it is important to explain how revising priorities and strategies will impact the organization as a whole, it is equally important to ensure employees feel aligned to the new path forward. Aligned employees:
- Have a clear understanding of the new business strategy
- Have confidence in the new business strategy
- Understand how their work and work experience support the new strategy
- Understand how their new responsibilities and rewards will be fulfilling for them
Much of the groundwork for achieving alignment is accomplished through education and communication. That is, keeping employees informed of new developments, of potential impact to the workforce, and of any new responsibilities or opportunities coming their way. Potentially, communication is the golden thread that can tie all employees to the new strategy, especially as many of them continue to work remotely or in adapted work environments. Ensure your communication plan is sustainable and effective by adhering to these simple steps:
- Decide which key messages employees need to hear (messages about what is new, about plans for what to do next, about the current state of the business, etc.).
- Identify and promote a single reliable and trusted source of information so everyone is hearing the same thing. This may be an intranet site, a regular newsletter, town hall meetings, etc.
- Define an order for the flow of communications if required. Do some parties (senior leadership, line managers, etc.) need to hear certain messages before they are released to the general population? This might be the case if impacts are negative or will require leaders to answer questions or provide specific follow-up guidance for their teams.
- Invest in multiple forms of media to deliver key messages. Especially with dispersed or distracted workforces, email blasts or posters in the break room may not be enough. Consider multiple vehicles to deliver important messages and reminders. Also consider posting information and summaries to locations where employees can access and retrieve them if they need to reference them.
- Commit to regular communication. Establish a regular schedule (weekly, monthly, or another suitable cadence) for communications regarding the present status of the company and any new developments. A reliable schedule for communications helps employees feel connected and makes them feel valued as members of the organization. Regular, transparent communication also promotes the idea that leadership is in control of the situation and can be trusted to lead the workforce along the path forward.
As you formulate a way forward, keep the employee experience at the forefront of your people strategy, and emphasize its importance in all your company communications and educational material. These materials should clearly explain the new strategy, reinforce the fact that all employee contributions are valued, and help employees visualize their place in the new normal. While intellectual alignment with the strategy for a way forward is important, it is only part of what connects employees to the workplace. Employees who are aligned and feel valued and heard are your engaged employees. They are the ones who will take your organization from surviving to thriving in the new normal. Engagement drives higher levels of loyalty, extra effort, innovation, adaptation to change, leadership, a strong culture, and much more.
Impact On Customers
Next, identify what you know about your customers’ behavior and needs. Dig into existing information or open new streams of customer feedback in order to understand how the pandemic has impacted them and their spending habits. What are their needs right now? Will they interact with you and your products in the same way they did before the pandemic? Have a plan to ensure that insights are captured and shared internally so you can quickly know what is working and what is not. During these evolving times, it is crucial to adapt quickly when needed. Consider an internal OnDemand customer feedback survey that asks employees to share feedback from customers; also consider soliciting these insights multiple times so that you can continually check and adjust.
However your organization decides to track customer needs, empowering employees to meet those needs is important. Maintain, enhance, or create new (as required) feedback opportunities for employees. Encourage them to use these opportunities to raise concerns about process flexibility, decision-making authority and/or any resources and tools they might need to delight customers. When you provide employees what they need to support the customer, you empower them to feel more fulfilled and engaged at work.
The way forward in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic may be a long and challenging journey. Taking those first paces together in unity (employees, leadership, and customers) requires strong coordination and a shared understanding of the strategy and expectations for the future.