As more of the world begins to open and take steps to do less working from home and reopen offices and workplaces, it is tempting to think that the hard part is over. But any rocket scientist will tell you that putting someone into space is hard. The trickiest part is bringing them back without burning up. How smooth will your re-entry to the office be?
Why will going back to work be trickier than you might think? There are a number of reasons:
People have experienced working from home and have a variety of reactions. A lot of companies were caught unawares by the work from home boom. They either knew they’d have to plan for it, “one day,” or didn’t think a lot of jobs could be done successfully from home. Also, some workers have enjoyed working away from the office more than they expected to, others thought it would be fun or productive and nearly lost their minds because of the isolation. Managers will have to have good conversations with team members to see “where they are,” with the change and adapt accordingly. Some people will want to maintain more independence, some will welcome the structure of the office. Know that the genie is out of the bottle, and no company will be able to go back to exactly the way things worked before the pandemic hit.
People will need to process what’s happened, and the sudden burst of social interaction may slow productivity (at least at first). The traditional workplace is inherently social. We make friends, spend time chatting, and indulge in non-work activities (birthday cake in the breakroom!) that connect us. After being apart, it’s only natural people will want to check in with each other. Remember some have been struck hard by illness and other circumstances, others will have viewed the change in their work as an inconvenience and annoyance. Expect some tension, and a lot of phone calls and hallway conversations will take more time, and be less work-focused, than usual. Give people time to adjust and reconnect. Do what you can to facilitate re-connecting.
Not everyone will return at the same time or in the same frame of mind. Back in the old days (February) you may have had some people working from home part-time, or even full time, while others worked in the office every single day. Expect more hybrid teams as we move forward. Some people will want to go back to work immediately, while others will be dealing with changes to childcare, family issues, or even their own health. And depending on where you live, you may have lost people to illness during this time. Stay focused on the work that needs to be done, and who should perform what roles, rather than who is sitting in their desk on a given day.
The way we use technology has changed forever. Before Covid-19 hit, the use of webcams was on the rise. A lot of people still resisted, especially those who worked in the office. Now a lot of office workers have experienced what it’s like to be separated from their teammates, and that burst of empathy will lead to a change in how we work together. For one thing, pretty much everyone is out of excuses for not using Zoom, or Microsoft Teams, or some other webmeeting platform. For another, there will be fewer of those meetings where part of the team is in the conference room while others try to dial in and are heard over the speakerphone. Look for more fully-virtual meetings and more effective use of the webmeeting tools. Also, not for nothing, but “Zoom fatigue” is a real thing, and it can only be hoped we’ll be smarter about when we call a meeting and when we don’t.
So, reentry can be tricky. You want to avoid making avoidable mistakes by making assumptions about how people will react and what the business truly needs. But, hey, at least it isn’t rocket science.
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This guest post was written by Wayne Turmel and comes from the webinar Re-Entry Without Burning Up: Getting the Workplace Back to Normal.