Transitioning staff back to the workplace post-COVID-19

Two co workers having a discussion in the office

2020 has been a long and tumultuous year. It’s also been a year of disruption like no other – with more still to come as employers begin to call staff back to the physical workplace after months spent working remotely. Returning to the workplace after COVID-19 can be a daunting process for employees, but it’s also one that can be eased with a thoughtful approach to ensure your people return to the office motivated to work and reassured that their safety is a priority.   
You’ll no doubt find that some of your employees can’t wait to head back to the office. They’ll raise their hands to secure a new physically-distance workspace and be the first ones back through the door, hand sanitiser at the ready, all set to work in the one office space again. But there will also be other employees who have mixed feelings about returning to their usual workplace. 
In fact, according to findings in our recently released Hays Barometer Report, over half of those who are currently working remotely feel anxious about returning to the workplace. 
However, with restrictions lifting and many regions virtually eliminating COVID-19, it makes sense to formalise plans for a safe return to the workplace. So, if you are re-opening your office and would like staff who are working from home to transition back to the workplace, whether permanently or in a hybrid working model, here are some practical tips to ease the process for your employees.  

Returning to work strategies post-COVID-19 

  1. Communicate your health and safety commitment: Some staff will naturally be concerned for their safety, particularly those with young children or older relatives to care for, or health concerns of their own. These employees will require reassurance that you are doing everything you can to mitigate risks and create a physically safe workplace. So, share your return to work plan and the control, physical distancing, cleaning and hygiene measures you have in place to minimise risk. Also reiterate your adherence to the latest Government advice.

    As part of this, clearly communicate the responsibilities of employees themselves, such as the maximum number of people allowed in the lift or a meeting room, how often desks should be wiped down, new rules around the use of shared facilities like the kitchen and how regularly hand sanitiser should be used.

    If a particular employee is anxious about returning to the workplace, remain empathetic and reach out for a one-on-one conversation to understand their concerns. Then discuss together the alterations you could implement to ease their apprehension. For example, perhaps they could start an hour later to avoid a peak commute time. If further support is required, provide it sooner rather than later. 
  2. Be available to answer questions: Expect your employees to have plenty of questions. Make yourself available to answer each and every question, rather than leaving staff to assume the worst. 

    In addition, make sure you genuinely engage with all employees individually – including those who may not be vocal in their concerns but may still require your support re-orientating back into the workplace. 
  3. Offer a flexible transition: While you don’t want the transition back to the workplace to draw out for years, it should also not be an abrupt or mandatory experience for staff. After all, those who have enjoyed working from home now need to shift their mindset back into office-based working, which is an adjustment that can take time. For example, those commuting will have to set their alarm earlier, those with children will have less time to spend at home and schedules will become less flexible. This is a dramatic change that can be quite destabilising. So, give employees the space and time to make this transition in their own way and at their own pace.  

    For many, offering a hybrid working model, which blends remote and on-site working, is the perfect solution that allows employees to continue to balance the benefits of working from home with time in the office. In our conversations with both employers and skilled professionals, it’s clear that for industries that suit hybrid working, this will be the middle ground that will both attract and retain top talent.

    After all, many employees who have been working remotely have proven their productivity and want to retain some form of flexibility moving forward. A hybrid working model therefore allows employers to accommodate their employees’ desire for flexibility with their own wish to restore face-to-face contact between staff – while understanding that it will have no impact on productivity. So, think about the amount of time you realistically require staff to be physically present in the workplace and the amount of time they could spend working remotely. 

    For others, a gradual increase in hours spent in the physical workplace may help ease staff back into the office. 
  4. Align staff around your vision: Creating a shared vision around the benefits of returning to the office can help employees reacclimate to the workplace. For example, you could promote the cultural and collaborative benefits of office-based working. If employees can relate to the shared vision, they’ll carry it forward in practical ways, such as by reinstating team customs, whether that’s in the form of birthday celebrations, casual Fridays or team innovation sessions.  
  5. Create a mentally healthy workplace: As noted above, many people do not yet feel safe or comfortable returning to the workplace, so they may be experiencing high levels of anxiety and stress at the thought of having to do so. So, after a turbulent year that’s already been full of more workplace change than we’ve seen in recent years combined, prioritise and support the mental health and wellbeing of staff as they begin to transition back into the office. 
  6. Ensure your workplace is inclusive: Consciously create an inclusive work environment and a sense of belonging for all employees, particularly if you are operating in a hybrid working model. Everyone’s personal situation is different, so remember that everyone experiences office-based working in different ways. Be sensitive to people’s personal circumstances, working styles and management preferences, while taking steps to purposefully manage a hybrid team in an inclusive way.
  7. Ask for feedback: During this transition period, regularly ask your employees for feedback on how they are coping and whether any modifications are required to ease their return to the workplace. Of course, there are certain restrictions that must be maintained, such as physical distancing, but talking to your employees will allow you to identify and address any issues early on so you can continue to move forward. 
  8. Retain technology infrastructure: Finally, it is possible that this pandemic will be with us for some time yet to come, which may involve a second wave of infection. Therefore, retaining VPM capacity, remote collaboration tools and individual staff laptops will enable an organisation to revert quickly to remote working if another lockdown is required in future. 
To conclude, reorientating your employees with office working requires a considered approach that takes into account the individual circumstances of staff. As you re-open your office and encourage staff back into the workplace, we hope these tips help to ease the process for a seamless and successful transition.

About this author

Nick Deligiannis, Managing Director, began working at Hays in 1993 and since then he has held a variety of consulting and management roles across the business. In 2004 he was appointed to the Hays Board of Directors. He was made Managing Director of Australia and New Zealand in 2012.

Prior to joining Hays, he had a background in human resource management and marketing, and has formal qualifications in Psychology.

Follow Nick on LinkedIn

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