Business guide to Coronavirus

Managing the impacts of going back to the office

As we begin to see COVID-19 cases dropping and lockdown restrictions starting to ease, people are easing their way ‘back to work’. It’s an understatement to say that so much has changed in the last couple of months. 

People have had to almost overnight transform their ways of operating and communicating. Some have never had to work remotely before and were forced into unfamiliar territory. Some had to work in cramped conditions on their kitchen bench or dining table. 

For many, its been a less than ideal scenario. On top of that, homeschooling children. 

So, what are some of the things we can expect as we all head ‘back to work’? Will there be nervous excitement? Or will it feel like post-holiday blues? 

“There will be a lot of disappointment. We’ve asked a lot from our employees. They were not working from home — they were at home during a crisis trying to work,” says Professor Frederik Anseel from the UNSW Business School.

“They would have had the sense that they’ve done a great job. Sometimes working late after hours catching up on work. Many employees would have had emails from the CEO or management thanking employees for their hard work and support during difficult times.”

“Therefore employees will expect reciprocity when they head back to work. There will be a lot of expectations for managers to be accommodating and understanding. The first few weeks could start off fine as there will be a bit of energy and excitement — but then it will subside”. 

A call to managers — don’t go back to normal

The coronavirus pandemic has, in many ways, presented business leaders with the ultimate test: can they communicate effectively and reassure employees, despite so much uncertainty?

Employers need to be more understanding and aware that when we all go back to the office, it will be a bright new world already. And if management just wants to go to normal ways or how things were before, it will be met with a lot of resistance.

“It does not need to run smoothly in the beginning. We have all been through turbulence. We need to stand still and reflect on what we have learnt. We need to listen more and to see what can we re-organise”. 

Staggered starts and back up teams 

Most businesses that have experienced a crisis will likely have a drop-in performance. We’ve seen that during the Global Financial Crisis recovery period. Data showed that businesses who had the ability to reflect on the future — not the past — had the quickest recovery. 

To help with the recovery process, Professor Anseel recommends having ‘separate teams’ when employees are returning to work. This will help manage control if there is an outbreak in one team, then that whole team will be quarantined. 

Staggered starts can also be implemented. For example, have one group to come in from 6am to 12pm. Use the time in between to deep clean and then the next group will work between 1pm to 7pm. This means you may need to stretch your opening hours. 

Of course, minimise in-person meetings and gatherings as much as possible and maintain social distance. Conference rooms and meetings rooms can be transformed into working spaces to maintain a safe distance. 

A blended or hybrid approach can prove challenging initially because there will be a lot of coordination involved in who comes into the office, when and who works from home. There should be clean arguments on when people go to work for deep collaboration, there will be deep individual working.

It’s bottom-up, not top-down

The transition back to the physical workplace will be slow and full of trial and error. Because every employee has their own preferences in working, with some balancing caring duties, it will be worthwhile having a ‘bottom-up’ approach to organising their own schedules. 

“We need to trust our people to make this work. They will find ways to organise this. Leaders are required to take a leap in the dark because people are inventive,” Professor Anseel says.     

“Employers need to be very understanding of peoples circumstances. COVID-19 has affected a lot of people. People are exhausted and there is a lot of anxiety of the economy and job security”. 

Catherine Ngo

Senior Editor and Content Writer – Business Australia

Catherine is passionate about unravelling the latest news and insights to help entrepreneurs, small business owners and employers.

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