How do we return to the office as safely as possible? Do we really need to return to the office at all? How can we balance employees’ varying needs and attitudes on this question with crucial safety concerns?
These are the questions on everyone’s minds right now. I’m on multiple calls a week with HR executives, legal teams, and executive teams trying to sort through all the complicated issues involved. There have been a lot of headlines about big companies announcing that remote work is now permanent—but many companies are still figuring out where working from home fits into their future plans, and they expect many employees to return to a physical office.
If you’re still developing your office reopening strategy, don’t finalize it unless you’ve addressed these three points:
1. You need to survey employees in detail to understand their differing needs and worries—and do it more than once.
These policies need to be co-created or they will not fly. Culture Amp offers customizable free surveys that many tech companies are using to gauge employee needs and sentiment. Don’t just ask the big question–are you ready to return to the office?–but really get into specifics. Here are just a few ideas:
- Ask about employees’ comfort commuting using public transportation.
- Find out which employees have childcare issues, and what those issues are.
- What kinds of office sanitation would make people feel comfortable?
- How would people feel about sharing office space with someone who’s not wearing a mask or who’s been on a recent business trip.
- How open are employees to staggered workweeks and other hybrid strategies that blend WFH with in-office work?
Try to cover all the ins and outs and recognize that some employees will tell you they love working from home and will want WFH as a permanent option.
You also can’t assume that if you survey employees once in the summer, they’ll feel the same come autumn. We all know infection numbers are growing in some places, and a resurgence of the virus–along with new public policy restrictions–are possible anywhere. Do regular surveys to keep tabs on how employees are feeling. Aim to over-communicate and listen actively. People have real and justifiable fears around these issues—regular, clear, two-way communication is key.
2. If you’re still hiring, your new recruits will have questions about returning to work—and you need answers.
Questions around Covid and returning to the office are just as urgent for new hires as they are for existing employees. In fact, your return-to-work plan might make or break your ability to land a great new hire. Remind is one company sending job candidates a list of FAQs before they even schedule their first interview. That’s a great way to get out ahead of those questions and show that you’re taking employees’ needs and concerns seriously.
Be aware that your company culture will feel different going forward, whether you shift to all-remote work, open up WFH as a permanent but voluntary option, or return to the office. It’s widely accepted that the classic startup office isn’t coming back any time soon. Many companies are redesigning floor plans to encourage social distancing, putting up barriers between desks, limiting the capacity of conference rooms, and removing communal snacks and even personal trinkets on desks. Salesforce is making all these changes and more, creating a pandemic-management playbook the company intends to improve upon, like any software engineering problem. With both new hires and existing employees, you need to think strategically about how to adapt to those changes without losing the collaborative, supportive culture you’ve worked hard to create.
3. You need to optimize your work from home (WFH) plan.
Most employers instituted work from home as an emergency measure when lockdowns went into place. But the future of work clearly includes a mix of WFH and in-office work. Even if you reopen your offices, some people won’t want to return if it means daily temperature checks and staggered entry and exit times. Others have pre-existing health conditions and may not be comfortable working around large numbers of other people every day. Regardless, now is the time to up level your WFH policies and tools to make sure the experience is as good as you can make it.
Make sure managers are over-communicating with their WFH reports. A lot of companies have been sending employees surprise boxes of swag, snacks, or gift cards (for Amazon or takeout services like DoorDash or GrubHub) to keep people feeling connected. Another company’s CEO is personally calling every single employee who’s single and living alone to check in on them and make sure they don’t feel too isolated. These little and big actions help employees feel engaged and connected, and some need it more than you realize.
Look for ways to add that casual, social connection people would get in the office back into the WFH day. I’ve heard of a company that sent seeds to every employee and then created a Slack channel for everyone to chat about their plants (and tease folks who don’t have a green thumb). I love this idea because it creates a fun space for employees to connect but doesn’t burden them with another Zoom meeting or pressure anyone to share about their personal lives. Think creatively about ways to spark those virtual water-cooler moments.
Returning to work post-lockdown is causing a lot of anxiety for everyone now. Keep in mind that nobody has had to lead in conditions like this before. Be gentle with yourself, and with your colleagues. If things are changing too fast to create a single policy now, it’s OK to stick with WFH for now and let employees know you’ll revisit in September or January. Whatever you decide, make sure you’re keeping those lines of communication open. That’s the best way to make employees feel like you’ve got their backs.
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