Since the start of COVID-19 many offices have been empty and work from home has become the new standard. Now as more people are vaccinated and COVID-19 infection numbers are dropping, returning to work is becoming a hot button, albeit controversial topic. While some employees look forward to returning to the office, many like the new remote set-up that allows them to work from the comfort of their homes.

So how should employers address return to work and figure out the future of their workplace? We spoke to Joey Price, founder of human resources outsourcing and consulting company Jumpstart HR to find out how to best retain employees and maintain office morale whether that’s in the office or remotely.

Joey Price Jumpstart HR

In what ways did COVID-19 change our perception of the workplace?
Joey Price: It turned it upside down entirely — it made us completely re-evaluate what it meant to work. It made us question if the workplace is really required, how we care for our teams, monitor performance, and engage and retain culture. The pandemic required so much from us in our home and personal lives. Even if you had been a work-from-home pro before the pandemic, the fact that working from home went from nice to have to public health mandate was a big change. We learned a lot from the experience and we aren’t going back to work and the workplace being synonymous.

How should employers broach the subject of returning to work?
It should be framed as a ‘return to workplace’ and not ‘return to work’. Many people who have been working remotely have been working longer and later hours. The work hasn’t gone away; that’s why it’s important to clarify ‘return to workplace’. There needs to be more listening than speaking when it comes to this topic — listening to your team’s sentiment, understanding what it might mean for people’s professional careers and their family situation. They may have kids in school or they’re the caretakers for others. Being flexible and thinking about how to adapt is key. It’s not just about being in the workplace but people taking public transit. Some people don’t want to work in an office setting with more restraints. Ultimately it boils down to being open, transparent and flexible, caring about your employees as a team and not just their output.

What happens if the majority of your employees don’t want to return?
We’re going to see some of that. There are articles saying that employees would rather quit or take pay cut rather than return. It presents a management issue and an opportunity to say you can work hybrid or fully remote. I would say, again, listen to your employees and find out what the barrier is for them to come into work. See if you can tackle those challenges on their behalf. You have to invest in your employees to show you care. If you don’t show you care, they’ll come back to the office but they’ll be applying to jobs while on the clock.

How can commuting be made more appealing if you do want people to return?
These are some commuter benefits you can offer to subsidize cost or you tell employees to come in two or three days a week to reduce the cost burden. These are organizations in Silicon Valley that can organize their own charter buses but a lot of employers are too small to do that. You should ask your employees, what can we do to make commuting better? If they say, not commuting, then you have your answer. You may also achieve some middle ground, where you say, okay we know you don’t like commuting, here are some Uber or Lyft credits, gas card credits, or additional PPE to make the commute more bearable.

What policies and precautions should there be to make people feel safe to return?
First of all, ensuring you’re following the government mandates and local jurisdictions. Providing PPE and making it available to all staff without expense is crucial. Next is office design, the way your office is set up may have to change. You may have an open workspace where people sit three feet apart so now you may need to reengineer desks, seating, and conference rooms. You also need to look at public spaces like water fountains or sharing food in the break room. Return to the workplace from a health perspective isn’t just showing up but also how space is reimagined to be safer.

What are some ways to facilitate collaboration and motivation when employees return to work?
This is where HR and marketing need to communicate and debrief. If your values are about creativity and innovation, then talk about how doing that in a physical workplace is better or more effective. What are some of the pain points of collaborating on Zoom rather than in a boardroom? What are the pain points of having an idea in one Slack channel and then copying and pasting in another Slack channel? It’s going to take effort to manufacture excitement. If you already have strong office culture then that’s easier than if your culture is miserable. Then people don’t want to be there — not because of Covid but because it’s a miserable place to work. Another great and easy way to show your appreciation is also in the form of Uber Eats credits.

How do you see the future of the workplace?
The workplace a year from now is going to look radically different to now even. Even COVID-19 winners like Zoom and Microsoft Teams are innovating product that works for both remote and in-office work at the same time. We will have lower occupancy limits in rooms and buildings, what was once a space for 100 people may go down to 60. More people are going to continue to move to the suburbs and wide-open spaces since work is just about where there’s WiFi. The talent pool is going to open up. It’s not about who can we hire in our zip code but who can we hire in the world. Technology will connect us in greater ways.

If you want your employees to return to work safely, read more about our corporate shuttles here.

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