6 Things to Consider as You Bring Remote Workers Back to the Office

Posted by Kristin Arnold on May 12, 2020

Now that most, if not all, of your team has been working from home during the COVID-19 crisis, you might be thinking all of your employees will resume work when the government eases social distancing restrictions.  Yet an increasing number of companies with white-collar employees have recently extended work-from-home policies far beyond the shelter-in-place timelines mandated by state and local authorities. According to the New York Times, some of these employees won’t be coming back until next year!

That’s good news for some remote employees, and devastating news for others as not all employees look at virtual teaming the same.  I believe there are six types of employees who have been sent home to work remotely.

There are employees who are:

  1. Desperate to come back to the office (I can’t get any work done with the kids on top of me!)
  2. Itching to get back (I put up with this because I had to, but I really don’t like working from home),
  3. Willing to come back (Working from home is okay, but I miss the office a bit)
  4. Reluctant to come back (Hey!  This remote work deal is great!  Can’t I just keep working from home?)
  5. Unwilling to come back.  (Now that I have experienced working from home, I do NOT want to come back to the office on a routine basis)
  6. Unable to come back.  (I don’t like remote work.  You don’t like the work I do remotely.  And you weren’t crazy about what I did onsite, either!)

To make matters worse, what are they coming back to?  Office life as they knew it WILL be different. We just don’t know how different it will be, but here’s my best guess.

Remote workers may return to:

  • Social Distancing: Desks will be spread out with dividers between desks and private offices at a premium.  Work schedules will be staggered so as to limit people in the office at the same time.  Break rooms and restrooms will be reconfigured along with an up-to-date cleaning schedule.  There will be more visual cues and signage to remind workers to practice social distancing.
  • Tech Tools: Now that we have climbed the steep learning curve, we’ll be using collaborative tech tools much more fluidly and frequently – even among the employees still in the office!
  • Personal Protective Equipment: When walking about the building, wearing face masks to protect others.  (Not at your desk, thank goodness!)
  • Medical Testing/Screening: Employees may only enter using one entrance along with temperature checks and disinfectants.
  • Travel: Minimize travel and large scale meetings (that last one breaks my heart!)
  • Touchless Tech:  Doors will open automatically using motion sensors, elevators will take voice commands, and Alexa will move into the office.
  • Sanitation: More frequent cleaning policies, improved ventilation systems, and addition of UV lights for more deeply disinfecting the office at night.

Before you sound the clarion call to return to the mothership,

Consider these six things:

1) Stage the Return. Rather than having everyone show up on your doorstep on the same day, bring back people in “waves” to accommodate employees’ willingness to return.  Start with those who are desperate and itching to come back first!  Share the new rules of office behavior (social distancing, break room etiquette, etc.) and ease them back into the office routines.  These initial returnees will be the mentors for others as more waves return to the office.

2) Allow Time to Reconnect.  For each wave, invest the first day back in the office allowing people to reconnect with each other, acclimatize to new check-in procedures (only use one entrance, temperature checks, use of PPE), and changes to the office environment (workspaces, break room, bathrooms, etc.).  They won’t be as productive that very first day, so don’t be surprised!

3) Rethink Your Belief System.  For each employee, ask yourself, does that function really need to come back to work in the office full time?  Separate the function from the person – you might be surprised to find that roles you traditionally believed needed to be in the office no longer need to be in the office five days a week.  What about four days in the office with the employee working one day at home?  Three days in the office and two at home?  Just come in on Fridays for meetings!  This is an opportunity to look at the world of virtual work a bit differently.  You may find that you don’t need as much commercial real estate to house all those people at the same time!

4) Reset Expectations.   Before Coronavirus (BC), your team had a productive office work cadence that included key performance indicators, meetings, work products, adjustments, hallway chats.  You managed by walking around.  Then your team went home abruptly – with or without guidance about how to work from home. In the virtual world, you manage deliverables, outputs, and results.  Over time, they develop a different work cadence that incorporates digital collaborative tools.

Recognize that there are different expectations when working in the office than when working at home – and to take the time to formalize your expectations – especially if remote work will be the “new normal” for the majority of your team.  For example, Janet Pogue-McLaurin, principal and workplace leader at design and architecture firm Gensler says, “We’re going to reevaluate face-to-face meetings: which are really important and which can be substituted.”

5)  Intentionally Shape the Culture.  In the BC past, many organizations treated their remote workers as appendages to the main team.  Yes, they were part of the team, but often forgotten during F2F meetings.  Left out of happy hours.  The proverbial fifth wheel.  For the foreseeable future, that ratio will be inverted: you’ll have more people working remotely than working in the office!  The culture will shift if you don’t pay attention to the subtle nuances in the remote world.  Pogue-McLaurin continues, “We want to reserve when we do come together to be special and important and about creating relationships — and to create social distance without feeling awkward.”

Could we ever go to 100% virtual?  “Of course, we have proved that over the last few months,” says Courtney Harrison, chief human resources officer at OneLogin Inc., says. “Do we want to? No. Our culture is built around diverse people and diverse office location vibes and that is what makes us who we are and keep things interesting. We like each other too much to want to be remote all the time.”

6)  Plan for the Unexpected. Every work environment is different, so think through what could possibly get in the way of your team coming back to work successfully together.  Then put in measures to make sure those things don’t happen!

Eventually, many of your remote workers will come back to the office – and several will stay at home working in various degrees.  Be intentional about making their entrance into their “new normal” as smooth as possible.

“Data from Vox Recode, infographic by Parcel Tracker, the internal parcel tracking software”

KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CPF | Master, CSP is a high-stakes meeting facilitator and professional panel moderator.  She’s been facilitating teams of executives and managers in making better decisions and achieving greater results for over 20 years.  She is the author of the award-winning book, Boring to Bravo: Proven Presentation Techniques to Engage, Involve and Inspire Audiences to Action.

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