The post-pandemic big return to office – 5 things to consider for a successful transition

(This topic was suggested by Serena, a fellow Human Capital (HC) professional. I welcome ideas and topics for articles on anything HC, leadership, coaching, training or personal development — so reach out and give me something to think and write about!)

Slowly, but hopefully surely we seem to see the light at the end of the tunnel with the COVID-19 pandemics. It has been a sad and trying episode in humanity’s history, one which has impacted us deeply personally, but also professionally.

When it comes to business, we were all forced into a digital era whether we liked it or not, whether we were ready for it or not.

Working remotely had almost become the norm whenever this was possible — and interestingly enough, after the initial hype and excitement of how much flexibility this seemed to offer us, the downsides of it also started rearing their ugly heads too.

For some people, working remotely has been a blessing — they gained back maybe up to two hours previously spent on commutes, they got to work in the silence of their spacious apartments or houses or gardens, spent more time with the kids and the spouses, etc.

For others, working remotely meant no longer having a clear boundary between work and personal life. It meant the easiest scenario to fall into even more hours on the job, even less self care. It meant spending more time locked in with more relatives than they wanted in way less space they would feel comfortable in. It meant maybe dealing with COVID-19 and the losses it brings — either for themselves or their relatives, friends, coworkers.

On the business side, things seem to have been just as polarized. I have talked to CEOs and entrepreneurs who have experienced a huge increase in business these days, others who have struggled and scrambled to reinvent the business and offerings to survive, and others who have closed shop and even worse — ended up in debt and with no income.

This rather sad intro is necessary to reflect all the things we need to consider when we are in a position to decide, for an office, for a company — when, if and how to return back to physical offices.

I wanna start with this:

There is no universal right answer to this problem.

So if you’re looking for a one-size fits all solution, you won’t find it here — if you find it elsewhere, be very skeptical because it’s probably just marketing glitter and sparkles and/or inflated confidence.

What you will find here is 5 factors to consider when you ponder the decision to return to the office (mostly targeted for a Human Capital professional, but also useful for any manager or business owner who is in charge with deciding this):

  1. Safety first: Regardless of how anxious and excited everyone is to return, make sure you do that only when it is safe for the lives of all people included. Don’t rush, don’t skip regulation, don’t skip safety measures just to avoid “upsetting” people. In these times, taking such decisions implies responsibility over people’s lives — not just your employees, but also their friends and relatives. Follow through diligently and check all the safety measures boxes.
  2. Consider the business context. Whenever I hear people proposing the question: “what is more important — the business or the people?”, I feel a vein is about to pop in my head. While this may sound funny and the kind of question that brings you many reactions and engagement on LinkedIn, it is pretty much like asking people “Would you rather have water or air?”. There is no business without people, and no people without the business. But to move beyond that distinction, the definition of a business is to perform a lucrative service or provide a useful and necessary product in exchange for money, in such a way that it can create and sustain growth and profit. So balancing costs should be on your mind always — and it’s not something reserved only for the CFO, Finance Manager, Business Controller, CEO, Owner, etc. As a Human Capital professional, you should be aware of your business’s financial situation and root all decisions into that. In what way? Well, if your business has been losing clients and revenue over the pandemic and it is struggling to make ends meet and go through payroll, the long term best decision might be to downscale office size to ensure more sustainability. Yes, this means giving something up. Yes, this might be scary or disappointing or revolting for some stakeholders. But as you probably have seen so far, you cannot please all expectations — your job is to play the long term “game”, to know the long term business strategy and to be able to see beyond present inconveniences or losses to ensure the business is still up and running in the future. And isn’t it much better to cut office size or amenities than to have to let people go?
  3. Consider the people. Very much in line with the same motto of how there is no business over people, once you have the macro business context in mind, get feedback from and lean in to hear what people want and need. I can guarantee all employees will want to have the opportunity to work remotely or from home more and more in the future. I can also guarantee you that all companies will do everything they can to provide that — if you or your business remain stuck in old-fashioned “I need to monitor people with my own eyes to ensure they actually do work”, you won’t survive in the job marketplace. At the same time, also consider that some employees really do not have a good work environment at home and need an office space to perform best — as I said before, they might be overcrowded, they might not have a good Internet connection, or they really struggle to focus on their work when their kid wants to attend all their video calls and “talk to those cute people on the screen”. It’s fun the first time, horrible when it happens every day, and especially daunting when it occurs during that big client demo.
  4. Preparation, preparation, preparation — when you plan the return to office, take time and be intentional about considering what physical equipment and office space requirements need to be adjusted and offered to employees so that they can work safely and comfortably. Also, train and consult everyone — from IT, Office admin, Human Capital, Finance, leadership and all employees on the new “rules of engagement” once we return to office.
  5. Expect some chaos for a while. Phew. You did it. You survived the pandemic and managed a successful return to business as usual (whether full in-office or hybrid). Your work is not done, though, and neither are the issues and the accommodation process. I predict people will scramble to find their mojos after things get back to “normal” — going through the initial hype of “yay back to office let’s hang out for coffees and lunch and rock the boat at office parties” to “this is too loud/it’s annoying/my coworker chews too loudly and why is it so cold/so hot in the office, etc”. You will need to muster up all your patience and tactful approach and mediation skills to successfully coach people to get used to each other… again. Yup, that sounds strange to me as well — but so are the times we live in.

And lastly, but definitely not least — this big decision should never rest on the shoulders of one individual. Ask for help. Enroll people in. Summon your leadership team to work on this together. Scramble and create one if you don’t have any. Tap in the power of your network to get ideas and support. You really are never alone in this, regardless of how it might feel exactly like that sometimes.

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Alexandra Serediuc - Founder of Light inSight

Alexandra Serediuc - Founder of Light inSight

Leadership Coach & HR Leader

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