Back to Work is Not Back to Normal. Start by Communicating

As businesses reopen following the “great shutdown,” it is a return to the workplace, but a not a return to the way things were.

Workplace protocols to reduce the risk of transmission will bring changes to common spaces, from conference rooms to break areas. Employees will find a more regimented and less welcoming environment, with hand sanitizer replacing candy dishes and access to amenities — such as coffee makers and cafeterias — altered. Many of the physical interactions that people missed in the virtual workplace — handshakes, shared lunch breaks, hallway conversations or the after-work social hour — will remain curtailed by physical distancing. For three months, it was always after 5 pm below the waist, and now people are coming back to an environment more regulated than the one they left.

At the same time, some employees will be wary of venturing back to eight or more hours a day of close proximity to others, and will want assurances of a healthy, safe workplace.

Back to work… with big questions.

Attendance rules that were universal now have to account for individual exceptions.

  • What accommodations need to be made for employees in higher-risk groups?
  • What about employees who cannot find childcare?
  • And how do you help ensure that individuals who have a cough, fever or had a risk of direct exposure stay home — without worrying that their jobs will still be there for them when they return?

Beyond those concerns is the really big question: “If we were able to function remotely for the equivalent of a fiscal quarter, why can’t we continue to work virtually?” Reasons will vary from organization to organization and even across departments, depending upon company culture, business model and client and customer (internal and external) expectations. Whether or not COVID-19 will change the nature of work is yet to be seen, but there’s no denying it has opened the debate.

As with everything else we have experienced during the pandemic, there are no easy answers to the “back-to-work” questions, no playbook, just a plethora of advice.

There is one certainty: Communication is essential.

  • Make sure your team members know what to expect when they come back. Define the new office protocols, including what the company is doing to protect its people. Do things for a reason, and share the reason.
  • Keep an open door. Just as with working remotely, not everyone returning to work is in the same situation, and those situations can change.
  • Welcome them back. Be human, not corporate. Thank them for their flexibility and dedication. Recognize that everyone has gone through something unprecedented. Everyone is experiencing unrest on top of uncertainty — a little empathy can go a long way.
  • Stay true to your culture and values in what and how you communicate. That will provide both common ground and consistency.
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