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Re-entering the Office? How to Foster a Favorable Return


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Preliminary data from our upcoming Workplace Collaboration: 2021-22 research study shows that nearly 70% of the ~500 end-user organizations benchmarked in December plan for at least some manner of a return to the office. In most cases, companies strive to enable employees who want to work in an office, to do so comfortably, rather than asking everybody to return. No current plans are concrete given the unpredictable nature of the COVID-19 spread. However, our data shows that IT, business, facilities, and human resources (HR) leaders must proactively plan for a future in which a portion of the workforce is back in the office. Given that, here are five pillars of a successful strategy to foster such a return.
  1. Ensure a healthy workplace. Today, companies allowing people back in the office are doing so on a limited basis and providing physical distancing and barriers such as Plexiglas to reduce virus spread. They’re also implementing capacity limits, both in the office overall and within meeting spaces. In some cases, businesses use applications that require workers to complete a health check at home before gaining access to the office. In my interviews with IT leaders for our study, I’ve seen various approaches with little consistency. To ensure success and minimize liability, business leaders must consult with legal, HR, and healthcare experts to understand and implement these best practices. Facilities teams must also stay apprised of emerging technologies, such as ultraviolet (UV) filtration, air quality sensors, and so on, to minimize the risk of airborne viral transmission.
  2. Address privacy concerns. Collecting employee data via health screenings or implementing location tracking to support contact tracing if an outbreak occurs within the office creates significant data collection privacy concerns including how data is stored, and who has access to it. As vaccine rollout becomes more widespread, organizational leadership will have to address policy implications such as mandating vaccination before allowing a return to the office or identifying those vaccinated. Business leaders must work closely with HR, and IT teams, to craft acceptable (and legal) policies and ensure that all data gets managed appropriately.
  3. Accept that the new workplace won’t resemble the old. In mid-December, I visited an office building for the first time since the pandemic hit hard in early March. It was a lonely and desolate place. After passing through the initial health screen and temperature check, employees met me in face masks, wearing protective gloves, and escorted me to an open meeting location. Nothing I saw resembled what life was like in a typical office before the pandemic. Working in such an environment is likely to create morale concerns. Management must ensure that the workplace doesn’t become so sterile that those wishing to return to the office will find themselves in a lonelier environment than if they had stayed home. Consider flexible work schedules or amenities such as wellness classes that reduce the likelihood that employees will simply sit at their desks in significantly empty offices for the majority of their time at work.
  4. Rethink the workspace. The pressure is on meeting application and endpoint vendors to improve the physical workspace. High-quality video capabilities, available in all work locations, is a must. Even as employees return to the office, it’s likely that they still won’t want to meet in traditional conference rooms and will instead engage in video conferences from their desks. Evaluate rapidly emerging AI-powered capabilities as well as dedicated high-quality desktop devices that are optimized for the video to improve audio and visual (A/V) experiences.
  5. Continue to focus on improving employee engagement. I’ve previously written about how video conferencing and team collaboration apps are the bedrock for successful work-from-home strategies. These applications will continue to be cornerstones, even as some percentage returns to the office, but they aren’t the be-all-end-all. Continue to evaluate and adopt additional tools that improve the ability of distributed and mixed virtual and in-person teams to communicate and collaborate. Examples include task project and workflow management apps, ideation tools, and social platforms designed to facilitate internal engagement with customers and partners.
A return to the office is likely for a significant percentage of the workforce over the next year, constrained by virus spread and vaccine distribution. Plan now for successful strategies that provide for a safe working environment and that allow for optimal engagement.