How can leaders plan a safe return to work?

‘As we get back to business there is still more change and areas to navigate ahead’

How can leaders plan a safe return to work?

While we have already experienced a significant level of change amidst the ongoing crisis, the ‘new normal’ may offer up even more uncertainty, said Steve Bennetts, Head of Employee Experience at Qualtrics in APJ.

And some of the “most foundational challenges” to navigating the crisis will continue to fall on HR.

“The reality is that as we return to work and get back to business there is still more change and areas to navigate ahead,” Bennetts said. “To overcome these and keep employees engaged throughout, businesses need to plan, observe, and be agile in their response.”

READ MORE: COVID-19: Are leaders doing enough to help affected employees?

He told HRD that many organisations are now at the planning stage. However, when employees actually start returning to offices, leaders need to observe workers’ engagement closely to gauge if the strategy is working or needs tweaking.

“The likelihood is there will be some small tweaks required, which is why the ability to be agile is key to keeping people engaged,” he said. “Longer term, once a sense of normality begins to return, leaders will need to reposition and normalise their existing offerings and messaging and create future-looking operating norms.”

We sat with Bennetts to get practicable guidelines to successfully manage the new normal.

HRD: What are the top challenges leaders should prepare for while planning for a safe return-to-work? What are simple steps leaders can take to be ready for those challenges?

SB: Ahead of the reopening of workplaces, the immediate priority for HR managers and people leaders is understanding what they need to do to ensure teams feel safe, supported, and ready to return to work.

This requires insight into how confident they feel about returning to work, and what actions you can take to support them in the transition. For instance, businesses might require onsite employees to wear face masks, others might decide to bring back teams in different stages, while some will need to display related signage.

Ultimately the key is understanding what steps will make employees feel safe returning, and then acting on them so that you can return to work with confidence.

Another key challenge for businesses is understanding how employee expectations have changed over the last few months. It’s fair to assume after working from home for such a prolonged period of time more employees will expect more workplace flexibility, which impacts the collaboration technologies used and the hours people work.

Leaders need to identify what changes employees want to keep or make, and then adjust their ways of working accordingly. Businesses can rapidly adjust and optimise their employee experience programs for this new normal by first formally seeking feedback from employees on their current situation.

From these insights, leaders can build an employee experience personalised to their needs and expectations.

READ MORE: How has COVID-19 affected employee well-being?

HRD: How can leaders avoid disengaging employees as they plan a reopening of the workplace?

SB: For businesses returning to the workplace, there are five principles leaders should follow to keep employees engaged:

  1. Show humanity - In your engagements with employees, be ultra-sensitive to their existing circumstances and concerns, and be clear about what you can do to help them
  2. Focus on what matters now - Take a hiatus on metrics because the disruption we’ve seen will have a major impact on responses and scores. At times like this, ask employees how they are feeling and what they need right now to keep them engaged
  3. Ask less, listen more - Shift you listening approach to be more open-ended and less anchored on what questions have been asked previously
  4. Make sure to respond - Following up with employees is even more critical in times of change. Take greater care to ask about what you can act on, get feedback to the people who can do something with it, and over-communicate with your employees
  5. Accelerate feedback styles - Collect, manage, and respond to feedback as quickly as you can. This might involve introducing different types of listening mechanisms

The key to keeping employees engaged throughout the changes is listening, listening often, and then taking action. Things are moving at such a fast rate right now leaders need regular insights into what they need to do to move forward the right way.

HRD: What are some tips for leaders to ensure an effective reopening of the business?

SB: Before businesses return, they need to have in place systems and processes that help them make rapid decisions on how to return to work the right way – from the best time, to what workplace changes are needed to ensure employees feel safe.

When it comes to work, we are transitioning to a new normal. And there are still many changes afoot, some planned and others unexpected.

Speed to insights is fundamental in this new world, they give HR leaders and people managers the ability to get regular, up-to-date, and easy-to-understand insights into the issues that matter, so they can take quick action to help employees succeed and thrive in this new reality.

Click here to get more tips on how to confidently and effectively reopen the workplace.

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