Back to the office: How you should manage the return to work after the lockdown

After almost two months working from home, some staff are likely to start coming back to the office in the next few weeks. Here are some top tips to manage the change.
Written by Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, Contributor

Employees are equipped with laptops, remote collaboration tools have been downloaded en masse, and IT teams have stepped up VPNs to support safe remote working across entire organizations. Almost two months into lockdown, the workforce is only just adapting to a new routine away from whiteboard meetings and after-work drinks – but employers, for their part, should already be planning for an eventual return to the physical office.

Staff won't be coming back to work under normal conditions. Without a vaccine on the immediate horizon, organizations will have to reopen the doors of the office while COVID-19 is still in the picture. In a new report from research firm Forrester, analysts call this the management phase of the crisis, lasting well into 2021, which will consist of re-organizing how we work, travel, congregate, eat, move and connect. For business leaders, crucially, the new rules will have to be designed in a way that protects workers' health.

SEE: Digital transformation: A CXO's guide (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

"What I tend to say to business executives is that if you mess this up now, it's going to have long-term implications in terms of your ability to retract and retain talent," Andrew Hewitt, Forrester analyst and co-author of the report, tells ZDNet. "People tend to remember negative things, and they won't forget. This will stick out as a pivotal moment for organizations."

The stakes are high, therefore. The giant remote-working experiment is soon to become a return-to-the-office exercise, and getting it right won't be a piece of cake. Here are a few tips to make the transition smoother.

Only bring back the staff you need

Hewitt has one piece of advice for what not to do, and that's to bring back all of your staff in in one go. "You bring people back in shifts, you stagger it," he says. "You certainly don't bring everybody together." Business leaders need to think about which roles they absolutely need to have in the office, and plan accordingly, so as to reduce the health risk to employees.

It is likely that facilities teams will be coming back first, followed closely by IT teams. In his conversations with CIOs, Hewitt has often heard that IT workers will be expected to be back sooner rather than later to get the workplace ready, set up desks and sanitize equipment. It might be worth thinking about building a sanitation area outside of the office to make sure that every device gets a proper clean before coming in. "There is definitely a sense of the IT team taking responsibility for driving the hygiene of the workplace, or at least working closely with facilities on it," says Hewitt.

To establish a gradual returning process, firms could bring workers back in the reverse order in which they sent them home to work, for example. Scheduling rotating shifts for employees who are back in the office will also be key to maintaining social-distancing policies, and to avoiding full office occupancy.

Set up new rules for the office

Much of the fabric of business, from attending client events to shaking hands, has been disrupted by the pandemic, and this is likely to be reflected in the physical workplace, too. It might be necessary to increase the distance between work spaces, and to strengthen hygiene procedures, for example, by reminding staff about regular hand-washing or providing hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment.  

Temperature checks could also be implemented for visitors entering the building. New technologies are fast developing to quickly screen the temperature of many people at a time via heat-detection cameras, while connecting findings to a laptop or a tablet in real time. 

Social events will probably get a little bit less social, the number of staff attending team meetings should be limited, and in-person visits to the office will be restricted. After all, the past few months have demonstrated, if anything, that Zoom or Teams make for viable alternatives to real-life conversations.

Ramp up your digital hygiene

It's not only about physical sanitation: cleaning up the digital mess that weeks of remote working might have caused will be a top priority for IT teams when workers start coming back into the office. "You need to think about what types of things made their way onto employee computers during this entire time," says Hewitt. "People have been downloading software, video games, and all sorts of stuff that you don't really know about."

The same devices are going to be connecting directly into the company's corporate network, and making sure that laptops are clean and free of malware will be critical. Hewitt recommends implementing some processes for "digital sanitation" that will ensure a degree of hardware security, preserve multi-factor authentication and, if necessary, keep VPNs up and running.

SEE: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Security was one of the most important challenges for CIOs as employees switched to remote working, and will still be an on-going issue as staff return to work. "Those devices come back, and they are not secure," says Hewitt. "That'll be on the eyes of many CIOs."

Prepare for a number of staff to stay at home

Some employees are more vulnerable, others live with relatives who are at risk, and others simply prefer working from home. Either way, a proportion of the workforce won't be returning to the office anytime soon, and business leaders need to make sure that the technology infrastructure remains in place to support remote work. 

Hewitt added that given the uncertainty surrounding the timeline of the pandemic, strengthening telecommuting protocols will also let organizations prepare for a second wave of infection. "Organizations are going to have to have flexible work styles in place so that they have that muscle memory to switch back to for frequent closings and re-openings," says the analyst. "Businesses should make their technology environment more agile. This way, they can switch back to a flexible mode very quickly."

That switch might be necessary again in the near term due to the coronavirus, but could also be required in the more distant future, if other disasters hit. From being an employee benefit, remote working has effectively switched to constituting a core part of business continuity. 

In other words, CIOs shouldn't expect to kiss video-conferencing tools and virtual desktops goodbye just yet. Quite the opposite: business leaders should further accelerate the adoption of remote-collaboration apps, high-performance networks, and flexible cloud solutions. From a security perspective, Hewitt also stresses the need to resist the temptation to reduce VPN capacity or to decrease the number of licenses.

Don't stop communicating

Every manager has found that keeping their team engaged has required extra effort to communicate with employees stuck at home during lockdown, and the same rule will apply to staff returning to work. Levelling the playing field between those who are remote and those who are in the office is traditionally seen as a challenge for businesses experimenting with telecommuting; but with the majority of employees now working from home, the dynamic has been turned upside down.

"As everybody gets back into this bifurcated world," says Hewitt, "there will need to be processes around communication and collaboration. For example, you'll need social tools to connect to those who come back into the office with those who are still remote."

SEE: Burnout: How you and your boss can reduce the risk of overload

With many returning staff now used to their at-home work routine, managers should also give employees plenty of time to familiarize themselves with working in an office again. Small things like travelling to work or sharing a space with colleagues, or even re-connecting to corporate networks and setting up the office work space, will require re-adjustment. It might be worth developing re-orientation processes, and setting up plenty of one-to-one meetings to regularly check-in on employees.

Show empathy

One thing is for sure, emphasizes Hewitt: a fair section of the workforce won't be coming back to the office for a wide range of different reasons, and the biggest mistake would be to require people to show up to work. 

"A lot of business leaders are having empathetic conversations still," says Hewitt, "and I think we're still a couple of months away from the end of the empathy phase." But even the end of the empathy phase is unlikely to be synonymous with a forced return to the office, adds the analyst. "At the end of the day, the business needs to do what the business needs to do. But I feel like what the business needs to do might be to continue being empathetic," he says.

With half of US adults reporting that they are afraid to go back to work due to the risk of exposure, organizations will have to show that they are prioritizing the physical and mental safety of their employees to make sure that staff keep trusting their managers. 

Forrester's research shows that in the UK, 60% of workers believe their firms have their wellbeing at heart. Yet this week, government back-to-work guidelines were drafted for employers, and they caused outcry among trade unions. The Trades Union Congress (TUC), which represents 5.5 million workers, tweeted that it has raised urgent concerns about the guidelines, because they let employers choose how closely to follow the rules. 

"When lockdown eases bad bosses will be able to expose their workers – and all of us – to infection without fear of consequences," says the TUC. No organization wants to be remembered as the "bad boss" during a global health crisis; and business leaders are likely to be closely scrutinized as they manage the return to work over the next few months. As Hewitt cautions, you don't want to mess it up.

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