How To Safely And Strategically Bring Employees Back To The Office
As we enter the tail end of summer, nations around the world are debating whether or not to send their children back to school in the middle of a pandemic. The decision comes down to assessing the risks to community health and safety if schools reopen, as well as the potential social and development risks to young people if schools remain closed.
These concerns aren’t exclusive to students and educators. Business leaders are also tasked with measuring the impact of remote work on not only the health of their organizations but also the health and wellbeing of their employees. Like the proverbial frog that succumbs to a slow boil, it can be difficult to detect hazards in our environment as we gradually acclimate to the new “normal.”
Leaders must understand all of the possible implications of bringing employees back into the office vs. keeping them home. Of course, if you’re an essential service, you’re already back to work with (hopefully) the proper safety precautions in place. But organizations that exist in the gray zone must pay close attention to what is most helpful and harmful to the health of their teams – as a whole and as individuals.
There are many aspects of remote work, like freedom and flexibility, that employees love. Employers also enjoy remote work from a cost savings standpoint, because it reduces the expense of real estate and employee resources like parking and onsite childcare. Since people started working remotely during the pandemic, organizations have also reported a substantial increase in productivity.
While freedom breeds creativity, so do spontaneous, unplanned, in-person interactions. Socially stimulating environments are so valuable, in fact, that creative workplaces like the building for Pixar Animation Studios are designed specifically to encourage employees to bump into each other. When people are in more relaxed settings, like a bar or cafe, they end up having more idea-generating conversations than they would during more structured office meetings.
Leaders in the technology industry, which runs on creativity, as well as senior executives responsible for creating and overseeing effective strategies in consulting and engineering are particularly concerned with dwindling creativity.
If you aren’t walking to the bus stop together or sharing a coffee break, you don’t get to know people on the personal level that fosters feelings of trust and loyalty. When colleagues aren’t spending adequate unstructured time with one another, they tend to be less open about themselves, which impacts their ability to trust and build relationships with one another.
This can have huge implications for different functions of an organization, especially sales and “big picture” projects involving massive organizational shifts where employees must trust one another to get things done. If you’re going to build an airplane, you have to be able to trust the people responsible for making the wings.
As people become less trustful, they’ll naturally feel less connected. Leaders are worried about the durability of employee connectedness, which is essentially the glue holding an organization together. When people are working at home in front of a computer all day, they’re focused more on their work and less on who they’re working for.
This might drive higher turnover and productivity issues, because remote work can make it more difficult to align with organizational goals. Even if people are working hard, they’re more likely to work on the wrong things.
For example, if my organization’s aim is to become the best coaching organization in North America, we could have continuous, impromptu conversations about what this actually looks like in an office setting. Outside of the office, it’s more difficult for especially junior employees to gain a clear understanding of their role in achieving the company’s mission.
As organizations re-enter office spaces, leaders are very carefully starting to explore new ways of bringing colleagues together while pract icing the social distancing measures necessary to stay safe. Some executives are hosting office social events outdoors. Others are encouraging walking meetings, which were important creativity and morale boosters long before Covid-19.
Leaders who are successfully bringing workers back into the office are strategically fostering the most creativity, trust and connection with the least amount of potential exposure to Covid-19. This requires a close understanding of how individual team members work with each other.
For example, if you have a team of 50 people, how many interactions are essential to each employee’s job satisfaction and productivity? By testing different socially distant office set-ups, leaders may be able to capture 90% of essential office interaction with only 10% of the in-person contact. If you’ve determined it is safe to bring 10% of your team back into the office, you might bring 10% back for two weeks, then bring a different 10% back for the remainder of the month to see which set-up yields the best results.
Many of us have been living in a sort of Groundhog Day reality, where every day is the same. Though sameness and routine can be convenient, they can also be uninspiring and downright exhausting. Anything leaders can do to introduce unstructured novelty into employees’ remote and socially distant experiences is likely to pay dividends.
Something as simple as having a small, socially distant gathering at an outdoor restaurant serving unfamiliar cuisine can spark your team’s creativity and encourage bonding through shared experience. Novelty is one of the greatest drivers of innovation and, during this time of sameness and social isolation, it is one of the most valuable tools for sharpening your company’s competitive edge.
Originally posted at Forbes.com.