Article from Georgene Huang in Forbes shares some realities for leaders bringing employees back.

Going Back To Normal When Normal No Longer Exists: A Guide To Inclusive Planning

After spending what feels like a year adjusting to our new way of life, I can’t stop thinking about what returning to the office will look like. Besides being remarkably different from the way we left it, I expect the transition back to “normalcy” will come with many of its own pains. 

We aren’t returning from a long vacation; we’re returning from a global and life-altering health crisis. As Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, said: “Opening isn’t going to be an event, it will be a process.” The working world will change, so here are four things leaders should consider when making plans:

1. Make a plan that provides adequate options for every employee. 

Some employees will embrace returning to a physical workplace more quickly than others. Many schools and daycares are closed for the remainder of the school year and summer activities have been suspended, so working parents may not be able to jump immediately back into work. In larger cities, inevitable concerns about using public transportation will impact commutes. Some people are caring for parents or relatives and won’t want to risk coming in contact with others and for individuals in good health, there will certainly be lasting anxiety that remains prevalent for months — perhaps even years — to come. 

Not to mention the “one in four Americans [who have] some form of disability, and…are among the most vulnerable population for Covid-19,” according to The Wall Street Journal. “In some ways, the virus only amplifies for others what the experience of having a disability has always been,” Damian Gregory, a 46-year-old consultant and advocate with cerebral palsy, told WSJ. Although stay-at-home orders have seemingly provided an equalizer for the time being, when those orders are lifted, disabled populations will only be put at a greater disadvantage than before.

In industries where remote work isn’t possible, leadership needs to clearly articulate what is being done to protect employees’ health. Make plans so that employees who feel comfortable going back to work can do so, but come up with solutions to accommodate those who aren’t ready or need to take care of others. Prepare managers, HR and IT departments for every employee response. Even then, issues will still arise that you didn’t foresee so it’s vital to remain open to conversations. 

What accommodations employers are legally obligated to make is a major consideration, but beyond that, there are moral and health decisions that employers never imagined they’d have to make. And what impact will these decisions have on morale and corporate culture? Balancing everyone’s needs with business decisions isn’t simple, but in a knowledge economy, employee job satisfaction is highly correlated with productivity and business outcomes.

2. Managers may need to get personal and offer emotional support.

For the past few months, and foreseeable future, employees are bringing their entire selves to work because they have no other option. They’re working from home, managing children, struggling to keep their mental (and physical) health in check, taking care of relatives, and sometimes taking on additional work as layoffs and furloughs ripple through industries. 

On top of that, employees will be coming back from months of experiencing high stress and anxiety and will likely confront symptoms of burnout (if not already feeling burnt out).This isn’t the time to refrain from asking employees what they’re feeling. It will be particularly difficult for people – like myself – who try to compartmentalize their personal and professional lives. If employees feel comfortable opening up, you can better manage expectations on both sides. You may have to work harder at earning individuals’ trust, but it will be easier if your plan is transparent and you offer empathy throughout. 

3. Don’t expect things to return to what they used to be. 

Many workplaces will be returning with fewer employees than before, but with continued health, business and economic stressors. The entire workplace dynamic may become more complex as certain employees return to the office and others remain remote. When everyone works remotely, all workplace relationships are equally distant, providing everyone with the same challenges and opportunities. When a handful of employees go back to the office it’s going to take extra effort to ensure that remote employees are still included in meetings, conversations, and generally kept “in-the-know.” 

There’s also the physical element of returning to workspaces. How can you rearrange office layouts to accommodate for additional space between employees? Leaders may need to think about staggering the days when people come into the office and consider hiring additional cleaning crews (whose safety they also need to keep in mind) to keep things sanitized. 

Finally, there are hundreds of thousands of employees who don’t work in traditional offices and will face different challenges. What will happen to clothing stores where multiple people can try on the same item? Or factories where workers stand close together on an assembly line? The scale of change that we’ll need to manage is staggering.

4. Evaluate what worked and what didn’t to prepare for the future. 

Take time to reflect on what you learned, both about your employees and company. Every business and industry is going to deal with its own set of challenges, but what should unify every leader is a desire to plan for the future. While no one knows what will happen next, every company should start planning for the worst. It’s clear that few were adequately prepared for a global pandemic. Smart business leaders will take this catastrophic event and conduct a post-mortem on what happened to learn from any preventable mistakes in the future. For many this will lead to a lean cash-culture and for others more flexible work environments. 

When we return to “normal,” it’s likely that none of us will be the same, so we can’t expect the workplace to stay the same either. If we want an end-state that preserves the diversity and rich tapestry of human talent in the workforce, leaders must act intentionally to make return plans that account for everyone.

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