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Balancing Workforce Safety with Back to Work: The Second Wave Edition

Updated: Nov 29, 2021

Editor’s Note: This blog was last updated in September 2020. In January 2021 it was completely reworked, expanded and updated to reflect the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not that long ago, businesses and organizations began cautiously inviting their workforce back into the office. But a second wave of global COVID-19 infections has halted that process. The reality is that a return to in-person work won’t be happening any time soon — but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can be doing now to prepare.

Woman returning to work with a mask

As the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic crashes across Canada, companies like the Bank of Montreal, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and TD Canada Trust have extended their work-from-home policies well into 2021. In the United States, Microsoft, Target, Ford Motor and The New York Times have all postponed a return to the office until the summer.

Remote working, once considered a perk, has now become the norm as countless employees have spent most of 2020 working from home. While many have enjoyed the experience, others are fatigued by it. Employees want remote work to be an option, but not a replacement for the traditional office. A survey by Big Red Rooster, a JLL company, found that 94% of employees want the option to return to the physical office.

At the same time, a survey by workplace management software company Envoy found most respondents have significant concerns about their employers’ ability to keep them safe.

Here are some strategies, resources and ideas organizations are currently using and exploring to prepare for an eventual return to the workspace.

Reflect On Lessons Learned

One benefit of — dare we say it — 2020 vision is that employers who were able to bring employees back to a shared workplace last year can now use this second shutdown to revisit the return-to-work protocols, policies and procedures they put in place. Take this opportunity to thoroughly review what worked, what didn’t work, and why — and then use that information to prepare for the next time there’s the opportunity to bring your workforce together again.

Re-Imagine Current Space

The second wave is also providing more opportunity to rethink and transform offices and workplaces. This takes careful planning. Everything from building preparedness — such as HVAC and water systems — to sick leave policies, contact tracing, and the need to build trust must all be factored in. Oh, and don’t forget those things you can’t control.

We found a helpful and wide-ranging resource in the article Navigating Your Future Workplace Post COVID-19: A Roadmap by Amy Rosen and Mike Sayer in Work Design Magazine.

The Hub And Spoke Model

In the Fast Company magazine article See the unusual new office design that Deloitte and KPMG are exploring, freelance journalist Nate Berg describes how companies are thinking differently about bringing employees and contractors back into a workspace. Some are considering the Hub and Spoke Office Model, which establishes a central hub headquarters and uses several smaller branches, or spokes, in surrounding areas. Individuals can work locally and commute less, resulting in increased productivity. Large organizations are considering 'drive to' destinations, where people are protected and can safely gather, collaborate and innovate in ways that happen best 'in person.'

Use Scheduling Technology

Combined with signage, physical distancing, workplace reconfiguration, sanitation and screening, companies are also looking at staggered and shifted returns. This means people take turns going into the workplace on specific days and times, gathering in pre-determined teams or with cohorts and within designated work areas.

Companies are exploring the use of scheduling technology to better organize their teams and cohorts, while reducing the risk of too many people in a space at the same time. One example is the online scheduling and workforce management software created by Shiftboard, a company working with organizations who have complex operations around the world. On their blog, Shiftboard lists three key benefits of using technology to schedule a workforce.

Continue To Inform Your Workforce

However and whenever your organization plans to bring its employees back to the workspace, it’s vital to create and deliver clear, consistent communications as a way of establishing expectations and addressing fears. Leaders who take the time to ensure a regular flow of information about organizational strategies to keep their employees and clients safe will lessen the anxiety and stress for returning team members. Those team members, in turn, will be better able to focus on their day-to-day activities.

Effective communications can also help your team build new habits and adjust to new ways of doing business. As you build your plan for a safe workplace return, providing current and credible information on hygiene practices and cleaning protocols will help build and reinforce new habits for everyone.

These are times full of change and uncertainty — times that demand organizations continue to shift and strategize, finding new ways to ensure the health and safety of their employees, clients and customers while also exploring ways to improve productivity, to keep costs manageable, and to ensure collaboration, confidence and creativity thrive.

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