The rapid spread of COVID-19 demanded an abrupt transition of global business operations, with large sectors of the economy shifting rapidly to remote work and, in many cases, stopping work completely. In Canada, close to five per cent of the labour force, or one million people, are now unemployed due to the pandemic.
Our economy will recover. And as it does, the questions will be when and how do we return to work? Two things are clear. We will not return to the workplace as it was pre-COVID. And now is the right time to prepare for a careful and gradual return.
What will the transition back to work look like?
- There is no one size fits all solution; transition will look different in each community, as the timeline and severity of the outbreak have varied by location, depending on population density and social restrictions. The degree to which people have to be physically present in order to be effective at their jobs also varies.
- Planning a phased approach will likely be the most realistic option, while bringing many complexities. Many will be hesitant to return and concerned about continued risks to their health and that of loved ones. Lack of widespread testing and asymptomatic carriers make it impossible to determine exactly who is infected, and we can’t say for sure if recovery confers immunity.
How will you determine when it is safe and appropriate for your non-essential workers to go back to the workplace?
- It will be important to provide clarity and confidence to your people: define in advance the criteria you are using to determine when it is prudent to reopen workplaces. Be transparent on how you are considering this critical question in all communications – it will have a huge impact on your people and their communities.
- Let public health data, local infrastructure changes (e.g. reopening of transit), availability of testing, community support (e.g. reopening of public and private education and childcare) and guidance from public health authorities inform your decision.
- Decide whether to slowly reopen workplaces in different locations at different times, or delay until all areas of your operations are deemed safe and can reopen together. When the time comes, visible leadership, frequent communication, enforcement of processes and clear contingency plans will help alleviate anxiety.
How do we safely and respectfully work together in the new workplace environment?
- Open plan offices, kitchens, retail stores and production lines create ongoing risk for employees and businesses. Operations and HR leaders should identify now how to mitigate future workplace infection, and how to communicate and foster the needed shifts in norms and environments.
- Consider providing and/or requiring use of personal protective equipment (assuming needs of medical workers are first met), reconfiguring and/or setting up barriers or shields between workspaces, and instituting medical policies (temperature taking, testing, etc.). Make an explicit commitment to ongoing deep cleaning and closing sites where employees test positive in the coming months. Being open doesn’t necessarily mean staying open.
When and where will we work?
- In markets that have already started going back to work, many employee schedules have been adjusted to prevent workplace overcrowding, with blue- and white-collar roles alike now working in shifts. Remote work has opened the door to non-traditional schedules, as people seek to balance the blending of personal and professional commitments.
- Certain working styles adopted by organizations during COVID-19 may become preferred ways of working in the future. This might include expanding shift-based work, incentivizing and/or loosening restrictions on working from home, adopting a hybrid remote-physical workplace to help reduce crowding and accommodate flexible schedules, and rethinking travel and in-person meetings vs. videoconference or remote meeting technologies.
How do we build confidence and resilience when vulnerabilities and complexities continue?
- Visible leadership will be more important than ever to provide comfort and direction to returning employees. Start with compassion. As has been true throughout this pandemic, acknowledging and addressing employee concerns remains key to building confidence and trust.
- Leaders at all levels will need to demonstrate empathy, understanding and patience. In many cases, organizational values will have been tested in unexpected ways, and might need to be reaffirmed or reimagined.
- To build resilience, companies will need to carefully consider longer-term measures, including leader and manager training and extending (or expanding) new benefits such as hazard pay, mental health counseling and extended sick leave. Build in real time feedback loops for employees, including surveys, to show you are listening and working to address their concerns.
What are the implications for diversity & inclusion as we return to work?
- This will be an opportunity for companies to underscore their commitments to diversity and inclusion and live their core values. Mindfulness about diversity and inclusion will be especially important as employees continue to feel stress and worry about the unknown as they return to the workplace.
- Xenophobia and cultural tensions may persist as we go into recovery. Efforts to ensure diversity, equity and inclusion will need to be prioritized to ensure that both existing biases (gender, race, age, socio-economic status, working parents) do not become further entrenched. Intentional inclusion will go a long way in positively impacting employees’ wellbeing, sense of belonging, and, as a result, productivity.
How can we ensure we focus on the right priorities and don’t automatically return to old habits?
- COVID-19 offers a unique moment to rethink assumptions of past practices. Leaders and employees should reflect on how their actions have altered organizational culture. Leadership should adopt a transformation mindset and will need to evaluate whether 2020 strategic priorities, scorecards, programs and related resources need to be changed.
- Conduct an internal assessment of how priorities and practices have evolved – including what changes should be made institutional, or reversed. Extend practices that promote employee wellbeing, create value for stakeholders, adhere to company values, integrate lessons and support a more resilient and sustainable business.