How to manage the first day back in the office (Hint: no parties, but lots of flexibility)

Alfie Brown

Companies are letting employees take the lead on workplace reopenings. Here’s how it’s gone so far.

Many businesses plan to officially reopen their workplaces by the summer. And with so many colleagues meeting in person for the first time in over a year, things are bound to be a little awkward. 

“Initially, it was kind of eerie; it was kind of weird,” says one Herts business owner “We’ve never been in a situation like this before.”

Herts Investor asked CEOs of fast-growing businesses and workplace experts for their thoughts on the best way to execute a safe and equitable return to the office. While each company’s strategy looks different, business owners tend to agree that for now, leaders should listen to employees and stay flexible. Here’s their advice.

Don’t Rush Reentry

Don’t expect that all employees will be eager to return to the office, even if they’re vaccinated. Instead, get employee buy-in by validating individuals’ concerns and asking what will make them feel safe.  “soft reopenings” began all over the county last summer, and employees who didn’t feel comfortable returning were mostly told to continue working from home.

Some companies, have been planning to build a new headquarters and shift to a hybrid work model after the pandemic, new office space with technology to make it easier for in-office and remote colleagues to collaborate. Eventually, businesses will have to be less understanding, and resume some degree of standardisation in their policies. This will really challenge business owners, it will create issues and resentments and jealousies if you’re offering more flexibility to one employee versus another. But for now, flexibility is the best strategy.

Workplace experts agree, urging bosses to bear in mind that employees may have experienced the pandemic in vastly different ways. There is certainly a danger in asking individuals to do too much too soon, or things that are too far out of their comfort zone, Some workers were at low risk and affected only indirectly, by having to change their lifestyles; others lost loved ones, got sick themselves, or had reason to fear for their safety on a daily basis; and some might still be dealing with long-term symptoms. The key will be to find ways to support employee autonomy, and to recognise that various members of your workforce will be at different points of acceptance with regards to return to work.

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If you do decide to set a date for employees to return to the office, avoid making it a requirement. Besides potentially alienating employees, strict rules can open you up to lawsuits if workers perceive them as discriminatory, so, keeping remote work as an option, if you can.

If you need to bring people back, make sure they know why–and whom they can contact if they have concerns. Work with your HR department to stay current on laws, and when in doubt, follow the strictest regulations regarding workplace safety. Once you have a policy, make sure it’s in writing, along with any exceptions, and is applied equitably to your entire staff to avoid discrimination claims.

Navigating Opening Day

Along with providing PPE in the office, many companies have temporarily altered their workplace layouts and schedules to help keep workers safe as they return. Most new headquarters are designed so that employees can collaborate freely and work from a different spot every day if they chose. Most companies only have 35 to 40 percent of employees work in the office on a given day. That way, there’s ample room between people, companies should also supply cleaning wipes, hand sanitizer, and masks.

While safety restrictions are still preventing most reopened workplaces from feeling fully “normal,” companies are doing their best to make employees comfortable. Small gestures can help lighten the mood, you could do things in your office to help raise the morale during these very stressful times, stand-up-and-stretch time, goofy time–anything to break up the monotony. Encourages employees to take walks in the park during breaks. 

One thing most companies aren’t doing when they reopen is celebrating. Many have yet to reschedule the events that they canceled last year. Companies have postponed anniversary and milestone celebrations. And even now it’s technically safe to do so, its propberbly good advise not to require employees to show up to company parties–or even large meetings–while they’re still getting reacclimatised to office life.

While many workers are eager to reunite with colleagues, and employers want to facilitate those connections, any celebrations you hold should be after work hours, outdoors, and optional.

It’s also worth reminding your team of any mental health resources your company offers, such as an employee assistance program, that can help ease the transition back into the workplace. This is a great opportunity to beef up your response to mental health as an employer, encouraging business leaders to have open conversations about the difficulty of shedding pandemic-era routines and to acknowledge that everyone on the team is going through the process together.

In the aftermath of the crisis is when we need time to process and time to reintegrate. And that’s the moment we’re coming upon right now.