As states start hitting their vaccine targets, employees are gearing up to return to work. But they’re unlikely to be the same as when they left. Here’s how to prepare.
Months of lockdowns in Victoria and New South Wales have meant employees have had to readjust their work routines, work hours and, in some instances, their expectations.
They’ve ditched their trousers for stretchy pants; their feet have adjusted to the comfort of Ugg boots for 12 hours a day; and they’ve finally mastered the at-home office set up. But now, for many, it’s time to start thinking about the return to work.
Some will rejoice at this thought – finally high-speed internet, distraction-free work and less of those you’re-on-mute-can-you-hear-me-now-you-keep-cutting-out conversations.
For others, the prospect of having to adjust, yet again, to a new work environment is exhausting. This is why it’s best for employers not to dictate exactly what the return to work looks like, as the unofficial mantra for 2021 is ‘let employees choose’.
However, for those instances where a return to work is necessary, there are a few important considerations for employers and HR professionals to keep in mind.
The first is to acknowledge that we all have different emotional metabolisms, meaning we digest change and emotion differently. With this in mind, it’s important to note that the points below shouldn’t be treated as a prescriptive list but rather as thought starters.
“The best thing an employer can do right now is recognise that things need to change,” says Mehtap Ozdemirci CPHR, founder of Lock HR. “That doesn’t mean you need to throw out all your historical corporate policies… but the healthy option is to sit back and rethink what interaction will look like when people are back on site.
“You’re probably setting yourself up to fail if you have an assumption that things will just completely revert back to what they once were.”
1. Employees calling more of the shots
The pandemic has taken the traditional employee/employer relationship and turned it on its head. We can’t underestimate the significance of this; it will fundamentally change how we think about work forever.
In the short term, this could mean employees who’ve spent the last few months setting their own schedule, deadlines or work processes could be hesitant to revert to a traditional top-down management approach.
Of course, there will need to be some give and take in terms of oversight, guidance and directives from leadership, but it’s unlikely to look the same as it used to.
“When I look at the clients I’m working with that are having success with [hybrid] work models, it’s 100 per cent those that are flexible and not trying to replicate the on-site work day model into an offsite model.
“They recognise that their people can work when it suits them as long as they’re meeting client expectations and so forth. They’re moving towards an outcome-focussed approach as opposed to a detailed task-focussed approach.”
You need to assess the right type of autonomy needed for each individual, says Ozdemirci.
“When you’ve got new people coming into your team, the level of autonomy you provide them is very different to those who’ve worked with you for a number of years, because you’ve tested their capability… the more junior they are, generally, the more directive you are… but those with a higher skill set should look to leaders for consultation when they need it.”
HR can help leaders to prepare for this by coaching them to take a more collective leadership approach – which will be a long process for some people – and reminding them that there’s a great deal of research which shows that when you treat employees like autonomous adults, and demonstrate that you trust them, their engagement and performance increases.
“Anyone who’s going to want to revert back to a traditional master-servant type relationship is not going to be successful in this day and age.”
2. Fluctuating performance levels
HR professionals also need to prepare leaders for a potential dip in performance levels for some returning employees, as they transition back to working alongside others, for example, or potentially feel anxious about being out in public again.
While there’s no magic number to indicate how long it could last for, Ozdemirci says accommodations may be necessary.
“Naturally, there will be an adjustment period, so we need to flag that up the chain to ensure there’s an awareness and understanding of what that looks like.”
However, she adds that this doesn’t mean you should ditch your current performance management processes, as employees still need to help their businesses bounce back.
“You don’t want to ignore [underperformance], just recognise that part of any change process is being prepared for the risks and looking at how you can mitigate them.”
If an employee is struggling, it’s worth keeping extensive records of what you did to support them to avoid this coming back to bite you should you have to go down the path of termination.
As HRM has previously reported, the FWC has previously not looked kindly upon employers who didn’t factor in the extenuating circumstances of the pandemic when dismissing staff for underperformance.
3. New boundaries
After months of Zoom trivia and speaking over each other during virtual drinks after work, many people will be excited to see their colleagues in person.
But for every person who can’t wait to pack their diaries with lunches, meetings and brainstorm sessions, there will be someone who is totally overwhelmed by the sudden surge in social activities.
They might have set new boundaries about how they’d like to interact with people, or it might take them a while to warm up.
With this in mind, it’s important employers are respectful of people’s new-found boundaries. This might mean not scheduling too many meetings or making it clear that social activities are 100 per cent opt in.
Team leaders need to develop a strong understanding of their people’s core personalities, says Ozdemirci, and “where they draw their energy from”. She suggests conducting some personality profiling as a way to do this.
“Respect the fact that everyone is different. If people say ‘no’ to a social event, it’s not them being rude; they’re being authentic.”
“You’re probably setting yourself up to fail if you have an assumption that things will just completely revert back to what they once were.” – Mehtap Ozdemirci CPHR, founder of Lock HR
4. Wearing headphones while working
What was once considered a rude gesture – blocking your colleagues out by wearing noise-cancelling headphones – will likely become commonplace as employees readjust to working in the presence of others.
In order to get into a deep work flow they might need to zone out to a playlist (here’s one I use). Employers may need to “be proactive to normalise this and have conversations about some of the [other] strategies they recommend,” says Ozdemirci.
Employers have been designing office spaces to cater to people’s individual needs for quite some time, says Ozdemirci.
“There are some departments and teams that naturally attract more outgoing, extroverted personalities and others that attract more introverted personalities. There needs to be enough crossover and opportunity for those groups to mix… But traditionally, you see that [employers] can be strategic about where they place people or create special zones, or quiet spaces, for those who need to focus.
“I’ve got clients that have different ways of using their chat programs and avatars. When someone needs to concentrate, they can put up a certain type of avatar that’s an automatic signal to their team to not distract them for a specific block of time.”
5. Breaking away from the 9-5 constraints
While employees may have once panicked if they were going to be 20 minutes late to work – frantically crafting a message to the company Slack channel as they crawl through bumper-to-bumper traffic – they might be less likely to give it much thought these days.
To the first point in this article, some employees have started setting their own work hours and the majority have proved they’ve been able to stay on top of their workload despite not being chained to their desk from 9am to 5pm on the dot.
This is part of a broader conversation about how we measure productivity – which we will save for another time – but the message for leaders and HR is simple: if you try and enforce old ways of working, you might find employees go searching for a business that’s more aligned with the modern way of working.
A smooth return to work
The success of these changes will depend on “the capability of the leadership team and the appetite of the business”, says Ozdemirci.
“Employee expectations have shifted. The way we relate to one another has shifted. We’ve got to know each other on a different level than we would have ever had exposure to, so that means things will change. But I would encourage people to think of the benefits that come with that.”
Finally, Ozdemirci suggests developing a formal change management process to accompany the return to work. This should include a communication plan, thought around employees’ anticipated reactions to the return to work, and consideration of the potential risks (i.e. performance dips).
She also suggests appointing ‘change champions’ – such as middle managers – to advocate for an employee’s plan and, where necessary, help to inform it.
“Don’t underestimate the planning that needs to go into this to set it up for success and be prepared to pivot at any moment, depending on any additional curveballs that are thrown your way.”
Want to find out how your peers are preparing for the return to work? AHRI members can join the LinkedIn AHRI Lounge and start these important conversations with like-minded professionals.