Column

How to reopen workplaces safely

A CHRO’s view

When I started my career, business continuity during a disaster like COVID-19 would’ve been difficult, if not impossible. We were tethered to our desks. Computers were barely an option—and if you had one, it was a desktop, hardwired to the LAN.

Fortunately, these days we’re a lot more portable, and with technology, a lot more agile. Laptops, mobile, Wi-Fi, the cloud…they’ve made it possible for many of us to maintain our productivity outside of our “normal” workplace.

Even so, the past several months have taught us a lot as our work routines have been disrupted. I’ve talked to people leaders across industries and around the world, and we all agree: Work will never be the same. From employee safety to facilities and workplace services to business continuity, work has changed. Forever.

Where we go from here

As local shelter-in-place regulations ease in many of our regions, I’m hearing a lot about “return to work.” That’s too simple of a statement to define every situation. Work is not one-size-fits-all. Industries vary and workplaces have diverse footprints—manufacturing floors, farmland, retail locations, call centers, and yes, traditional office spaces. Here’s how I see it:

  • It’s true that employees in some industries who were furloughed or laid off will (hopefully) see a “return to work.”
  • But others who had formerly gone to a workplace and now work from home more realistically face a “return to workplace.”
  • And then there’s “workforce readiness”—preparing all employees to come back to the workplace in some capacity and facing the policies and training that requires.

As economies begin to reopen, this operational diversity increases the complexity of a return. That’s echoed in the conversations I’m having with other CHROs. Our dialogue is evolving from pure crisis management to how to manage the new ways we work. This crisis has also opened up the possibility for employers to be even more creative and flexible in how they address employee-to-employer needs.

A new era of employee and customer experiences

Returning to the workplace requires careful planning and execution, along with organizational agility. Business functions have to work together to create a safe and productive employee experience. Systems and access must be easy, seamless, and available across devices.

Those aren’t options with yesterday’s software and slow, outdated manual processes. They can’t be solved with spreadsheets. The workplace of the future (or shall we say, the workplace of now?) needs to digitally manage complex workflows to provide employees the services and experiences they need to do their jobs seamlessly and efficiently.

Digital workflows and keeping compassion in our approaches are critical as we adapt and design for “the next normal.” Around the world, what we see is that companies further along with this type of digital transformation are much better equipped to manage through this time. They’ll emerge from this crisis with a productive and engaged workforce, and more operationally ready for their employees to return to work or workplace or to stay working at home if they choose.

There will still be challenges as we move along the roadmap to reopen businesses across the globe. We will learn as we go, adapt, and change as needed. That’s why I anticipate a phased approach. We all want to carefully manage the health and safety of employees. Not everyone will re-enter the workplace at once, and when they do, we believe for many that they will have specific schedules, assigned spaces and resources, and limited physical collaboration. They may need to wear masks or take their temperature.

Technology-enabled, digitally transformed

So how do you make all of that happen? Above all, never lose sight of employee health and safety—and that of their families. Lead with compassion and take a people-first approach.

Beyond that, here’s the checklist I recommend:

Engage with employees to inform your plans; listen to feedback. Adapt as needed.
  • Determine who needs to know what and communicate in a targeted way. Start with company leadership. Provide them with materials to cascade through their organizations. Keep people managers informed. Distribute FAQs to them so they can answer most-anticipated questions.
  • Survey employees. Maybe do multiple survey pulse checks along the way. Measure their sentiment about your communications, your empathy, your IT support, whether they feel safe, and their productivity. Where needed, take action based on their feedback.
  • Make it easy for employees to find up-to-date information. It doesn’t have to be a one-stop-shop. But make sure the most important information about return to the workplace is clear to employees wherever they search.
Automate your steps to return.
  • Bring together a cross-functional team that meets regularly to evaluate progress, make decisions, and communicate to leadership and employees. At a minimum, include facilities, IT, legal, and HR. Make sure you have a clear decision matrix. Together we’re all better, but someone will need to make a final call.
  • Digitize processes for employee and workplace readiness. This is likely all new, but it’s also all a workflow opportunity. Health monitoring, PPE management, smart badging, janitorial notifications, guest registration, to name a few.
  • Use digital onboarding and ramp up guidance for new hires. Get them up to speed quickly in a mobile-friendly way.
Ensure a safe working environment.
  • This may be obvious, but clean, disinfect, and sanitize offices and other workplaces. Go a step further: Digitize janitorial requests and reporting so employees can quickly (on mobile, even) notify facilities when they’ve finished with a desk, a conference room, a register, a piece of equipment, etc., so it can be cleaned.
  • Remember the phasing? Manage planned and ad-hoc work arrangements. Make it easy to schedule when employees and guests will be on site. Make the on-location policies and any new procedures available digitally so everyone knows what to expect.
  • Depending on your industry, create a compliance checklist and update it regularly to ensure the workplace and facilities managers are adhering to guidelines.

The roadmap to reopen and the new ways to work, as well as where we work, are part of a journey. One we’re on together. One of the certainties is that companies have to transform how they operate as we return to workplace. The office environment when I started my career gave way to laptops, Wi-Fi, mobile devices, and voice assistants. For employees today and in the future, the traditional workplace is already a pre-COVID artifact.