The day where peo­ple return to nor­mal rou­tines around work doesn’t seem as far off today as it did just a few weeks ago. As politi­cians itch­ing to “re-open” the world look at ways to revive nor­mal­cy, com­pa­nies now have to do the same as they con­sid­er oper­a­tional needs and employ­ee safety.

As the work envi­ron­ment shifts back toward what it was, what HR teams will find is that a new nor­mal must now exist. Pro­ce­dures that were once an after­thought, such as how the break room was cleaned, are now top of mind for every­one from entry lev­el employ­ees to the C‑suite. Hav­ing the trust of your employ­ees that the work­place is safe for them to return to is para­mount to productivity.

And it isn’t just dur­ing a peri­od of time when the virus sub­sides tem­porar­i­ly. The last­ing impact of the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic is that even after a vac­cine is devel­oped, it will alter the way peo­ple view the clean­li­ness of pub­lic spaces and the ameni­ties at their dis­pos­al for things such as wash­ing their hands or cleans­ing shared sur­faces, be it a meet­ing room table or door handles.

There is a lot more to con­sid­er than sim­ply reas­sur­ing every­one that the facil­i­ties are clean and that the com­pa­ny is doing the best it can to assure everyone’s health. There are cul­tur­al aspects of day-to-day busi­ness to address as well as impli­ca­tions for the organization’s rep­u­ta­tion to con­sid­er. As an arti­cle from the Soci­ety for Human Resource Man­age­ment notes, job can­di­dates inter­viewed in the future will ask how the com­pa­ny han­dled this sit­u­a­tion and “about the orga­ni­za­tion’s busi­ness con­ti­nu­ity plans, pan­dem­ic-spe­cif­ic plans and oth­er coro­n­avirus-ori­ent­ed practices.”

HR depart­ments have a sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge ahead, but not one they should shy away from or feel over­whelmed by.

“I think this is the begin­ning of the most excit­ing peri­od we’ve ever been part of,” Eric Tori­gian, Vice Pres­i­dent and Assis­tant Gen­er­al Man­ag­er of Glob­al HR for Ake­bono Brake Cor­po­ra­tion USA told us on a recent episode of the HR Exchange Net­work pod­cast. “Peo­ple are going to fig­ure out how to pour their pas­sion into it. The world has been get­ting ready for this for a while. We’ve been mov­ing to an online world, a gig econ­o­my, toward remote work groups. In the next 20 or 30 years, this world is going to change a lot and peo­ple are going to come back to this time and ask ‘who were the peo­ple that made the dif­fer­ence?’ I think they’re going to look at HR peo­ple and say they’re the ones who led us through this.”

Leadership Considerations

To help you man­age cur­rent and future employ­ee expec­ta­tions, here are 5 tips for man­ag­ing your teams’ return to the workplace.

  1. Get the Tim­ing Right

The gov­ern­ment telling every­one to get back to work isn’t like­ly to inspire faith in a lot of peo­ple giv­en how things have been han­dled so far and the fact that social dis­tanc­ing has been as effec­tive as it has. There are many peo­ple who would hes­i­tate to return to a nor­mal work­ing envi­ron­ment in the near future and rush­ing them back ear­ly will like­ly under­mine any good will accrued in facil­i­tat­ing remote work and estab­lish­ing improved engage­ment prac­tices dur­ing this period.

The first thing to con­sid­er is the sit­u­a­tion in your local area. The num­ber of new cas­es in the city and state will dri­ve per­cep­tion among your employ­ees. Even if num­bers are on the decline, a return may be seen as jump­ing the gun, par­tic­u­lar­ly for large com­pa­nies with big­ger per­son­nel footprints.

Once you decide to put things in motion, spend time dis­cussing team needs with man­agers to deter­mine which teams can remain remote and which ones are required to return. Then, assem­ble your oper­a­tions staff and devel­op a plan to cre­ate safer phys­i­cal spaces.

Final­ly, engage with your employ­ees to find out how they’re feel­ing about a pos­si­ble return to the office through sur­veys and town halls. Doing so and incor­po­rat­ing their con­cerns into your strat­e­gy will go a long way toward build­ing the type of trust nec­es­sary to main­tain a good rep­u­ta­tion with your employees.

  1. Facil­i­tate Social Distancing

Social dis­tanc­ing isn’t going any­where any time soon. This means restau­rants will like­ly have to re-think seat­ing arrange­ments, clean­li­ness prac­tices and per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment and test­ing for staff before they can re-open. That may mean lim­it­ing the scale of busi­ness and chang­ing the way peo­ple flow through the every part of the building.

Offices will have to con­sid­er whether desks spaces are sep­a­rat­ed enough to com­ply with social dis­tanc­ing stan­dards and retail oper­a­tions will need to con­tin­ue lim­it­ing the flow of peo­ple into their stores for the time being.

How com­pa­nies react and com­mit to this new nor­mal is going to deter­mine how well they main­tain morale and what the reac­tion of return­ing work­ers to phys­i­cal loca­tions will be. For new hires, see­ing a com­mit­ment to social dis­tanc­ing will reas­sure them that they’ve joined an orga­ni­za­tion which has their health and well­be­ing top of mind.

  1. Cul­ture of Cleanliness

There is always a lot of talk about cul­ture in HR, and in the wake of this pan­dem­ic, that is like­ly going to have to change as well. But as Tori­gian not­ed in our dis­cus­sion, teach­ing peo­ple how to be respon­si­ble around each oth­er and avoid the spread of the virus is a chal­lenge for both orga­ni­za­tions and soci­ety as a whole.

“That’s not just some­thing that’s good for busi­ness, it’s some­thing that is going to be required in the new world,” Tori­gian said. “We’ll learn how to do it and we’ll get real­ly good at it.”

This means chang­ing social norms. For exam­ple, ban­ning hand­shakes in favor of greet­ing tech­niques that respect per­son­al space and safety.

Beyond that, HR teams have to con­sid­er what mech­a­nisms are in place to ensure clean­li­ness, such as hand-wash­ing sta­tions and require­ments for dif­fer­ent roles. Which employ­ees require per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment, for exam­ple, is a key consideration.

Addi­tion­al­ly, using com­pa­ny resources to ensure safe­ty will help employ­ees feel the orga­ni­za­tion is doing every­thing in its pow­er to pri­or­i­tize their health and there­fore, will be more ded­i­cat­ed to doing their part. Care pack­ages with cleans­ing wipes, hand san­i­tiz­er, gloves, tis­sues and oth­er items they can use to stay safe is one small act that could go a long way toward inspir­ing confidence.

  1. Career Tran­si­tions

Busi­ness­es are bound to oper­ate dif­fer­ent­ly from here on out and with that comes some new real­i­ties. Peo­ple who have tra­di­tion­al­ly been in office may no longer be required to be there and some, unfor­tu­nate­ly, will not be required at all. That, how­ev­er, does not mean those peo­ple must be cut loose.

Now is an ide­al time for com­pa­nies to engage in career map­ping exer­cis­es to bet­ter under­stand the capa­bil­i­ties and inter­ests of their employ­ees. There is already talk of mass efforts by some in gov­ern­ment to retrain much of the work­force for posi­tions that can be done remote­ly and for careers that offer dif­fer­ent prospects going for­ward than what they’ve expe­ri­enced in the past, but that is some­thing that may be bet­ter led by HR pro­fes­sion­als than gov­ern­ment programs.

  1. Invest in Employ­ee Wellness

It may seem an inva­sion of pri­va­cy at first, but giv­en the impli­ca­tions for your staff as a whole, mon­i­tor­ing on-site employ­ees’ health and well­ness is a mat­ter of pub­lic safe­ty. Some pub­lic health experts say that office build­ings and pub­lic spaces such as bars and restau­rants can­not be re-opened until there are test­ing meth­ods that can be done quick­ly and accu­rate­ly to deter­mine if some­one is car­ry­ing the virus.

We’re like­ly a ways off from that being a pos­si­bil­i­ty for many busi­ness­es, but oth­ers are already putting mea­sures in place to con­duct tem­per­a­ture checks at entrances and get­ting cre­ative as they find solu­tions for social dis­tanc­ing buzzers and one way routes through shared spaces so that peo­ple don’t cross paths or come face-to-face with one another.

As an arti­cle from Bloomberg not­ed recent­ly: “The way we work, shop, trav­el and eat in 2020 – and prob­a­bly beyond – is being plot­ted out in board­rooms around the world.”

Mean­while, office spaces may have to be redesigned, mov­ing away from the open floor plans that have been trend­ing for sev­er­al years and toward cubi­cles with high walls so that employ­ees have more iso­lat­ed spaces.

To get ahead of these issues, now is the time for orga­ni­za­tions to begin dis­cussing what their path for­ward is and con­sid­er how much risk they are will­ing to take on in bring­ing employ­ees back to work. What improve­ments need to be made to san­i­ta­tion pro­ce­dures, ven­ti­la­tion sys­tems and the struc­ture of the work­place are all things that need to be evaluated.

By HR Exchange Net­work Edi­to­r­i­al Team

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