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6 tips for a successful transition back to work

By Stephanie Mount

The CEO of a media company set off a firestorm and a one-day employee strike following comments about employees returning to the workplace. The remarks in a Washington Post opinion piece were interpreted by employees as a threat to their jobs and benefits if they failed to return full-time to the office once the workplace reopens.

The comments were quickly walked back, and an apology to employees ensued. Employees were informed via email that the company wouldn’t change benefits or shift staff to freelance status. The comments were explained as an effort toward “preserving the cultures we built up in our offices.”

Unfortunately, the damage is done.

For certain, back to work is highly complex. Workers are divided on the most fundamental decisions related to returning to the workplace. Recent Eagle Hill research found that about half (48 percent) of U.S. workers say employers should require employees to be vaccinated. Additionally, forty-nine percent say employers should require workers to provide vaccination proof before returning to the workplace. More than one-third of workers (35 percent) say non-vaccinated employees should not be permitted to work in person with vaccinated co-workers.

48%

of U.S. workers say employers should require employees to be vaccinated

49%

of U.S. workers say employers should require workers to provide vaccination proof before returning to the workplace

35%

of U.S. workers say non-vaccinated employees should not be permitted to work in person with co-workers

Some employees are genuinely fearful for their health and safety if they return to an office, while others prefer working more from home. At the same time, many employers have invested in office real estate and value the collaboration and innovation that results from the in-person engagement of their workforce.

Layer on the murky legal landscape regarding vaccine mandates in the workplace, and it’s clear that transitioning back to the workplace likely will be a bumpy road.

But it is possible to navigate back to the workplace and avoid getting swallowed up by deep potholes. But every company’s path will be different. Each business situation is unique, and employees’ views are not always the same.

This means employers must understand their employees’ unique views, concerns, and preferences, thoroughly explain the rationale behind their decisions, and set realistic back-to-work expectations. Rarely is everyone fully in agreement with tough choices. Still, employees are more likely to accommodate decisions when they’ve had an opportunity to provide input on topics that affect their health and well-being and understand the rationale behind decisions.

Regardless of your business and employee sentiment, here are six guiding principles employers can take to ease the path back to the workplace:

Listen to and understand your employees’ views. Organizations frequently solicit employee perspectives, but they’re often just going through the motions, listening but not truly understanding and interpreting into action. Rather than making assumptions about how your workforce feels, go directly to the source of information—employees—to understand their views on returning to work. Start by defining your employee populations, then use human-centered design tools like surveys, small group sessions, or interviews to dig deeper into their unique needs, apprehensions, and challenges in the face of returning to work. Next, analyze the information you’ve collected to get a big-picture view of employee sentiment. Finally, share with employees what you heard. This will demonstrate to employees that their opinions matter and will help guide collaborative decision-making.

Make employees part of the solution. If a large portion of your workforce wants to continue working from home, it’s time to consider modifying your business practices. Organizations that don’t seriously consider employee desires when it comes to returning to work are likely to see an uptick in turnover. Employers should not only collect employee voice when trying to understand perspectives on return-to-work but also include employees in solutions around what the future of work might look like at their respective organizations. The key to success is having employees involved in how to actually implement significant changes. For example, employee task forces can be set up around different return-to-work initiatives such as safety protocols in office design that would make them feel at ease amid continued concerns around COVID-19 or how to operate in a hybrid environment where some employees are in the office, and others are at home. By involving your employees in solutions, you get a broader (and stickier) set of ideas that are likely to resonate with your workforce.

Establish clear expectations at the outset. Any major transition means corralling enthusiasm and optimism across the organization and teams. Effective organizations set clear goals and realistic expectations. This means harnessing the optimism and collaborating—talking through worst-case scenarios, identifying potential obstacles, and planning to mitigate potential risks that will accommodate any disruptions.

Gain early buy-in from your workforce. Transition and program success will look different for each level of the organization. It is critical that organizational leadership set meaningful milestones and have a clear scope of work to help manage expectations for what your business changes will look like. Facilitating a seamless transition requires employees to understand and accept ‘why” they are doing this, then explaining the roles and responsibilities of everyone involved. By proactively communicating across the organization at every stage of the process, leadership allows the workforce to get used to the change and have the proper dialogue to support an inclusive and open work environment.

Communicate with employees first. When return-to-work decisions are finalized, share them with employees before any public declarations. The company mentioned earlier created unnecessary problems by airing concerns in a public forum rather than “keeping it in the family” and having a dialogue with employees. And informing employees must happen in a multi-faceted way to ensure employees fully understand decisions. Don’t just email employees, instead organize your communications across different mediums and from cross-functional leaders and team leads. For instance, use everyday technology platforms your employees might use to share updates on returning to work or set up a town hall where employees can ask questions, voice concerns and where their reactions can be assessed.

Maintain organizational agility. As you roll out the transition plans that accommodate your organizational need, keep a close tab on implementation. The needs and priorities of the organization and employees may shift. Enabling flexibility in your back-to-work approach and schedule will allow for changes as needed.