Article originally published by HRM Online

There’s plenty to keep in mind when formulating a return-to-work plan. But the psychological and emotional safety of employees should be paramount.

Empty shelves at office supply retailers such as Officeworks and IKEA tell the story of the millions of employees who’ve restructured their homes to accommodate the requirements of their new virtual role.

You would have already read plenty of articles that go into either the benefits and challenges of working from home. However, because of the nature of the COVID-19 interruption, little time has been available to plan for the end of the episode – the return to work.

Just as wild animals need a managed adjustment to life in a zoo, humans who have experienced work outside the four walls of the office require a planned, individualised and carefully orchestrated re-entry to the workplace.

So what exactly should that plan look like?

The individualised approach

The business that attempts to implement a one-size-fits-all solution for its return to work is going to run into trouble – this crisis simply won’t allow that.

“The discussion should begin with what works for the specific business,” says Suzanne Gavrilovic, senior HR consultant at leading HR consultancy MWAH (make work absolutely human). “The first question is whether you need people to come back to the office. Twitter recently decided they didn’t! Then you have to understand who should come back, whether it’s everybody or certain groups of people, or certain teams.

“Finally, and most importantly, you have to do a lot of work to understand what’s right for each of your team members. They’re all going to feel completely differently about the return.”

Some employees are desperate to get back to the office after feeling “trapped in their homes” during the pandemic, she says.

Others have come to appreciate the extra time in their lives, the lack of commuting, the ability to get on with work undisturbed by endless meetings, getting to be more involved in your childrens’ lives, etc. No two people are the same, so every individuals’ thoughts and concerns must be taken into account.

Gavin Freeman, performance psychologist and director of The Business Olympian, says the consultation process must be thorough and should leave individuals with the knowledge that their opinions and concerns have been heard and will be acted upon.

“The business should gather data through surveys, workshops and one-on-one conversations,” says Freeman. “That’s your starting point.

“We need to recognise there are going to be personal motivations in returning to the office, motivations that drive some people to want to return to work, and others to not want to return. Some will want to return full time while others will prefer a more flexible format. Some will simply refuse to return. All of these opinions and attitudes have to be heard and acted upon.”

Plans and protocols are essential

Once the data has been gathered around how people feel about returning to the office, and the business’ priorities figured out, clear plans and protocols must be developed and communicated.

You don’t want to do something like this on the fly, says Freeman. Having an official plan in place is incredibly important.

“This should be customised for your business, but you can find guidelines and samples of such plans on websites of various government bodies.”

These plans are all about safety within the office. They cover such topic areas as numbers of people allowed into meetings, staggered working and lunch hours, cleaning protocols, whether or not the business will continue to use hot-desking, the number of people allowed in a lift at any point, etc.

“These plans also include whether you are going to temperature test people as they come into the office,” says Freeman. “If so, where will this temperature testing take place? Who will do it? How many people will you have in the office at one time? Which roles are essential and who doesn’t need to come back in?”

And here is where things become complicated, says Freeman. Management must determine their plans from a psychologically safe perspective.

“From one angle, it may seem generous and humane to ask somebody to continue working from home, to recommend they don’t come back into the office,” he says. “But what if that individual is living in an unsafe environment at home, and work is a safe place for them? This is why it’s so important to know how individuals feel about their return to the office.”

Gavrilovic agrees, saying businesses need to think about meeting processes, visitor protocols, and more.

“What protocols are you going to have around people visiting the office?” she asks. “And what about meetings? Are you going to encourage people to continue using Zoom, for example, rather than forcing people together in meeting rooms?

“Managers must also understand what they can and cannot dictate that people do. For example, downloading the COVID-Safe app is a personal choice. People cannot be made to do it.”

Once the plan is in place, a communication plan must be developed to ensure every stakeholder understands exactly what has been decided, says Gavrilovic.

This is important for three reasons:

  1. It informs people around protocols in the office
  2. It offers staff members confidence that the business is committed to caring for their health and safety
  3. It lets individuals know their concerns were listened to, and will continue to be sought and acted upon in the future.

Prioritise emotional safety

Psychological safety should always be a priority in offices, but a potentially life-threatening pandemic draws an organisation’s mental health and emotional safety practices and procedures into far clearer focus.

“‘Psychologically safe’ means each individual’s fears and concerns have been understood and processes and plans have been put in place to support individuals. That’s everything from people feeling they have permission to speak up when they’re feeling uncomfortable or fearful, to understanding the concerns people have outside the office,” says Freeman.

Concerns outside the office might include anxieties about commuting on public transport, what’s placed on their employee record (and which therefore might affect their eligibility for future jobs), if they have pre-existing physical or mental health issues, and even concerns of other family members who don’t want them to come back to work.

Some people will suffer a fear of the unknown, says Freeman. Until they have enough information that convinces them things will be safe and that the business has managed the risk, they simply won’t be comfortable.

Another big challenge around psychological safety, he says, is how a business deals with those on paid on a salary as opposed to those on commission. Staff on a salary will be paid no matter where they work, but people on commission might be locked in to visiting clients and making sales to simply make a living.

“That’s a very different mindset and risk model,” says Freeman. “What’s the solution? There is no single one. The business needs to ask the question and come up with an approach that works. You need to treat people as individuals because every case will be different within its specific environment.”

Don’t let logistics undo your plans

Don’t make promises you can’t keep, says Freeman. For example:

  • If you’re telling staff that the office will be deep cleaned every day, have you found a cleaning business that will carry out the work?
  • If you’re asking everybody to use hand sanitiser before entering the office, where will your supply of sanitiser come from?
  • If you’re promising there will be no more than two people in a lift at a time, and the office is on the 44th floor of a CBD high-rise, how many hours will staff be left waiting for available lifts?

Don’t let the details ruin a great plan.

“One business I’m working with included personal protective equipment such as gloves and masks in their plan,” says Freeman. “They then identified the fact that it will take at least 10 days to have that equipment delivered to their head office, and even longer to get it out to regional offices. A plan is great, but it means nothing if the logistics are not nailed down.”