What will the new normal be? That’s the question businesses across Canada and around the world are trying to answer as governments lift restrictions put in place to help limit the spread of COVID-19. With companies eagerly reopening retail locations, ramping up production at manufacturing facilities and re-energizing their offices, it’s critical for leaders to develop and implement a comprehensive return-to-work plan to facilitate this new (cautiously optimistic) phase of the coronavirus pandemic.
That’s even more pressing with the start of a new school year, which many businesses are using as a relaunch date for an in-person return to the workplace.
Those plans not only have to ensure the safety of people and compliance with COVID-related health and safety measures, but must also take engagement and productivity into consideration, while helping to manage employee accommodation challenges connected to the pandemic. For example, many people are struggling with anxiety and other mental health challenges caused or exacerbated by the coronavirus. Some are refusing to return to the workplace altogether until a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available. Being prepared to address these and other challenges is one of the keys to your organization’s mid-pandemic operational success.
A new business normal
It’s a complex process and returning to growth involves many unknowns, but this is very much about considering how COVID-19 has impacted employees as your management team works to restore (or at least preserve) bottom-line performance. It also means embracing the idea that a return to the workplace will likely be anything but business as usual in the near term.
Simply put, the coronavirus crisis is unprecedented and our understanding of the outbreak continues to evolve. That’s why it’s imperative that your team develops a customized roadmap for safely resuming business operations that also sets the conditions for your workforce’s success. There are several considerations and steps that should factor into that return-to-growth strategy.
First, assign a team to manage the process. Both management and employees should be represented as you design a plan to bring employees back into the workplace. Leadership should have a clear vision for how that reopening should unfold with the goal of restoring peak productivity.
Will all employees return at once, or will that return be staggered? Some may not need to return at all. Determine what makes sense from an operational standpoint as you aim to deliver products and services in the most effective way possible. Managing the number of workers will be critical to protecting workplace health and mitigating the risk of future coronavirus outbreaks, especially in densely-packed office or manufacturing facilities where minimizing employee interaction can be a challenge.
Think health and safety
As such, you may need to review your physical work space with an eye to improving distancing to ensure worker safety. It’s important to assess how you might reconfigure your work environment to accommodate social distancing requirements, whether or not you need to supply Personal Protective Equipment to staff and customers and whether you need to enhance workplace sanitation practices to help avoid a potential outbreak that could further impact operations.
Also, consider your expectations with respect to employee performance, especially if some employees continue to work from home. Even if you’ve managed to adapt performance monitoring systems since the start of the pandemic, you’ll either need to make those changes permanent or revert to old ways of tracking employee output.
Remember that employees may need various forms of accommodation due to COVID-19, especially on the family status front. Some employees may choose to keep their children out of school or will require flexibility if their kids’ schools are shut down due to an outbreak. Managing their accommodation requests—such as allowing them to continue working from home or with greater flexibility to care for children—may, in some cases, be required. Have a strategy to manage requests as they arise and be sure to involve a qualified employment lawyer or HR professional in the process.
Another key consideration: how to protect data, proprietary information and confidential client files if remote working becomes the new norm. As we noted in a recent blog, cybersecurity is a prime concern in the COVID-19 era. Failing to bolster your digital security infrastructure could leave your organization vulnerable to hacking or phishing scams and expose it to serious legal liability.
Be prepared to revise policies
Regardless of your specific needs, it’s important that your management team is prepared to review your return-to-work strategy at regular intervals and make adjustments as necessary. This is a process that will likely require some degree of trial and error.
Other steps worth taking in the days and weeks ahead:
Assess the state of your infrastructure: This is the time to take stock of what your team needs to do their jobs effectively. Do you have the collaboration tools necessary to return to robust productivity and growth? Or, is there an opportunity to improve upon your existing tools to reflect new workplace realities?
Keep taking the pulse of workplace morale: An engaged workforce is key to driving productivity. Rebuilding morale with staff who have been working remotely for weeks or months will be imperative to building engagement and returning to growth mode. Put in the effort to listen to employees, understand their concerns and address those issues in a timely manner.
Train and communicate: It’s important to ensure that employees (and customers) know that health and safety is a continued priority and that you have a comprehensive strategy to maintain it in the months ahead. Employees will have to be trained in any new processes and protocols, and you should be prepared to communicate your workplace plans to help ensure buy-in and compliance.
While the past months have been extraordinarily disruptive for organizations, the chaos and disarray of the coronavirus pandemic has also presented opportunities to reimagine business practices and innovate to build a stronger organization. Now is the time to stress-test your return-to-growth strategy and leverage it to achieve business success.
George Grignano, Co-Managing Partner