Getting People Back to Work

Getting People Back to Work

Table of Contents

It doesn’t really matter what media source you check these days. Top stories report the easing of lockdown measures while opinion pieces debate the merits and pitfalls of doing so.

We all want to return to normalcy, whatever that looks like as COVID cases decline. It’s a matter of doing so with safety and sensitivity. There’s lots of talk around mental health fall out. PTSD. Anxiety. The stress of mounting bills for some. Uncertainty and fear of infection for others.  How are we going to readjust to social interaction when we’ve been isolating in our own tiny bubbles for what feels like an eternity?

Countries and companies are testing the waters. Their baby steps back into the workplace offer a roadmap for peers around the world.

Caution is the prevailing approach. Much as we watched governments slowly implement lockdown measures, the reverse is true to lifting them.

Office Shift Work (?!)

Managing the number of employees is proving critical to protecting employee health, and staggered returns to the workplace are quickly becoming a global best practice.

Reports indicate most China-based companies allow half or fewer of their employees into the office on any given day. At China’s food delivery giant Meituan, employees have been split into A, B and C shifts, with only one team allowed onsite daily. Airbus has divided employees at its plants into red and blue teams who don’t see each other because they use different routes to enter and exit buildings. Volkswagen is allocating more time between shifts and reducing productivity expectations because of the time it takes for people to move around each other at a safe distance.

Your organization can establish a similar process of getting back-to-work in stages by rotating groups of employees to work onsite. Consider creating these groups across functional lines to support physical distancing while also ensuring coverage across roles.

Office Health Cops

Yup, you read that right. Governments and employers are keeping a close eye on peoples’ adherence to health and safety measures.

Beijing’s urban management department has started office building checks to make sure companies are following rules. Guidelines for many workplaces include not having more than 50% of staff in the office at one time while maintaining at least one meter of space between employees. Fiat Chrysler has traded in thermometers for reusable forehead strips.

Increasing numbers of employees are being required to fill out a daily health questionnaire app on their phones that asks about their travel history, their housemates’ travel history, their health and mood. This information is scanned or presented to security guards posted at entrances. Without it – and a fever check – they can’t enter.

Search-giant Baidu has required employees to make appointments before they enter the office while Ford Motor Co. is experimenting with wearable devices that buzz workers if they get too close together.

As for face masks, wearing one all day is not only becoming routine but a steadfast requirement. At Oppo, the Shenzhen-based smartphone maker, management has tied employees’ face mask usage to their KPIs, the key performance indicators on which they’re evaluated. Fashionistas, get ready to open your wallets for de rigueur face wear.

Though we may not want such heavy-handed enforcement in our own organizations, we can turn to our occupational health and safety partners for practical support. Their resources could include posters that encourage staying home when sick, cough and sneeze etiquette, and hand hygiene. Or tutorials to train employees in the correct use of face masks and gloves and other personal protection equipment.

We’d also do well to review and update our internal risk assessments and action plans. Employee input is critical to identifying potential areas of virus transmission and surfacing appropriate measures for action.

Mental Health and Wellbeing

Days and weeks and months of isolation, anxiety, fear, and stress take a toll. We need to be hyper-vigilant about this.

  1. Returning will feel unsettling. Much may have changed since lockdown. Some old teammates may not be returning. It’s essential to invest efforts in rebuilding workplace morale. Acknowledge any employee concerns and dispiritedness and treat announcements regarding the new operating environment with sensitivity.
  2. If your organization has had layoffs expect some initial awkwardness from returning workers. If there have been changes to jobs – monitor output and stress levels – make adjustments if need be.
  3. Ask employees how they are feeling over and over and over again. Weekly pulse surveys can give you insights that people might be reluctant to share in one-on-one conversations with their managers.
  4. Sensitize managers. Provide them with pulse survey feedback. Encourage frequent: how ya doing check-ins. Caution against overburdening employees with additional tasks to fill absenteeism or layoff gaps.
  5. Pay close attention to employees who were ill with COVID. We still don’t know all the ramifications of the virus but we do know people who have had to spend time in ICU may have extra challenges. Post Intensive Care Syndrome (comparable to PTSD) is estimated to affect 30 to 50% of people admitted to ICU, and problems with memory and concentration often develop over time.
  6. Prepare to protect your most vulnerable, particularly employees who are at high risk or with close family members who are at high risk. Calm worries about the chances of infection at work by understanding fears, welcoming suggestions, and providing details about transmission suppression measures being taken.
  7. Provide information about the company and publicly available sources of support.

Physical Distancing and Infrastructure

A return back to work will also involve very real measures to suppress contagion through physical distancing measures. And a lot of that involves changes to existing high-density workplace layouts.

Companies that are ahead of the back to work “curve” are encouraging employees to use stairs instead of elevators, with spritzes of hand sanitizer before and after touching regularly disinfected handrails. At Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing, elevator floors have been divided into taped squares containing images of shoes to keep employees from standing too close to one another.

Lunchroom and cafeteria traffic is being regulated. Some organizations are arranging the timing of breaks to reduce the number of people sharing a cafeteria, staff room, or kitchen. Other companies are closing cafeterias in favor of vending machines. Dongfeng in Wuhan is handing out prepared lunchboxes to employees, who must eat at least 1.5 meters apart with their backs to each other. At its headquarters in Beijing, Sinochem arranged for food to be delivered to employees at their desks so that they could eat alone.

In the not too distant future legislation could very well mandate a minimum area per person in offices, as well as a reduction in maximum occupancy for elevators and large lobbies to minimize overcrowding. Leaders of major office architects like Knotel and Zaha Adid Architects and Scott Brownrigg envisage:

  • Wider corridors and doorways with one-way foot traffic
  • Better air filtration
  • Touchless elevator controls
  • Antimicrobial materials in new construction
  • Videoconferencing, even within the office, to avoid meetings in person
  • Use of colored carpets to create visual boundaries around desks
  • Plexiglass shields between desks that face each other
  • Signs or footpaths that direct walking traffic in a single direction
  • And a lot more staircases.

Working Remotely

A recent survey conducted by Box indicated two-thirds of respondents had a better impression of remote working than was the case pre-COVID, and just under half of respondents said that remote working would remain an option for those who felt uncomfortable returning to the office.

Andrew Roughan, Managing Director at Plexal suggests, “Remote working has become a necessity for the majority of workers, and it’s shown businesses – some of which might have been skeptical about allowing staff to work from home – that it is possible to maintain productivity and communication.”

Research by Gensler shows early results are telling us that people feel incredibly productive at home and would like to continue working remotely.

That’s all very important news.

As much as we may want to rush to bring everyone back into the physical work environment, there’s constant talk about a resurgence or second wave of COVID-19. Continuing with some form of remote work for several months (minimally) makes sound financial and practical sense. Imagine the excruciatingly stressful toll on your employees if remote work is foisted on all of us yet again. Better to finesse our remote work operations while we can, yes?

Consider surveying your employees to find out their preference prior to making your back-to-work plans, and then plan accordingly.

You might also want to ask vulnerable employees and those with family members at high risk to continue working from home until the all-clear is abundantly clear.

And remember, when you’re working with a blended in-office and at-home workforce plan all meetings, every corporate communique, your policies and procedures, your technology and tools from the perspective of the remote worker.

Lessons Learned

There’s no doubt this crisis has revealed a lot about our organizations.

Many of us will have uncovered stronger collaboration within and across teams, more productive working routines. Smart organizations will now seek to embed the lessons learned into how they conduct business in the future.

While getting back to work may seem overwhelming, and let’s be honest, there are a lot of unknowns ahead, as Dan Millman, author of Way of the Peaceful Warrior: A Book that Changes Lives suggests: The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.

So, let’s get planning. And building.