Planning the return

21 Apr 2022 by Steven Giannoulis

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After 8 months away from the office for our Auckland team and 3 months for our Wellington team, we are getting ready to return later this month. I’m excited and nervous all at the same time. In this article, I use our approach to returning to the office to offer some (hopefully) useful advice for other employers planning their return.

The team has done a great job through the many lockdowns, working hard to ensure the impact on productivity and quality has been limited. So, the need for us to return to the office is more about team culture than work output. Building a unified culture across two offices has always been important to us, maintaining it across 25 locations takes the challenge to another level. 

While the fundamentals of our culture remained intact via ZOOM/TEAMS, there are many aspects of teamwork that have been compromised by not being physically together. Idea generation sessions lose their spontaneity. That sense of comradery somehow gets lost without the personal connection. And, as new people join and engage with the team remotely, what we say about our culture and what they see aren’t always the same. 

As we began discussing how best to bring the team back to the office, we found ourselves trying to balance two conflicting objectives. On the one hand, we want to get back to re-establish the team culture that is such a big part of what we do. On the other, we need to ensure we manage people’s physical and mental wellbeing and the impact that has on our business. Navigating these issues has been core to the approach we’ve taken. Here’s some insights and learnings from our planning process:

  1. Be open - Balancing the desire to return to normality and safety is something all of us can relate to. Be transparent about your objectives, your concerns, and the reasons you have made the decision to return in the way you have. We’ve been open with all the decisions we’ve made throughout the pandemic – including the really tough ones about letting people go. Not everyone agreed with everything we’ve done but they understood our reasoning and appreciated the honesty. The same applies with the decision to return.
  2. Be clear and consistent – Keep it simple and direct. There’s been plenty of confusing, and sometimes conflicting, COVID messages from Government and in the media these past two years. Avoid adding to these. Ensure the actions you take, and the way you communicate them, align with what you’ve said and done before. For example, everything we’ve done in the last two years has aligned with the Government’s COVID framework. Now we’re using this same framework to support our assessment that it is safe for us to return.
  3. Ease safety concerns – it’s natural for people to feel nervous about coming back. Communicate what you will do to keep everyone as safe as possible: from providing masks, sanitiser, and RAT tests right through to managing visitors to the building. Explain what the plan is if people in the workplace get COVID and how you’ll manage the workload and their safety.
  4. Consider hybrid arrangements – many organisations are transitioning back using a hybrid approach. We’re doing the same with a temporary 3 days in the office, 2 days at home arrangement. It balances the risk and allows cultural interaction within and across teams. It’s also a good way for everyone to transition into a ‘going to work’ routine before doing it full time.
  5. Manage longer-term expectations – there’s no doubt that COVID has adjusted people’s expectations about working from home (WFH), meaning more pressure for employers to offer flexible working from home arrangements. It’s important to be clear about your long-term goal so staff expectations are managed. We’re being explicit that our aspiration is a model where everyone is largely in the office. We’ll still offer flexible WFH arrangements allowing individuals to manage their workloads, wellbeing, and home commitments when they need to.
  6. Give everyone the time and space to adjust – like everything new we all need time to adjust to it, remember office protocols, and re-establish routines. It will take a few weeks or so to get to full speed again.
  7. Support mental health – COVID has been really difficult on employee’s mental health with concerns about job security and the challenges of balancing work and family. Returning to work is yet another thing to deal with. Acknowledge the challenge and remind everyone to give themselves a break. Provide them with tools and support that takes the pressure off where you can.
  8. Remind people what they missed – there are many advantages to working from the office such as easy access to resources, the office banter and the energy of having people around you. Go a little overboard to celebrate the office, encouraging people to reconnect with the things that made coming to work enjoyable for them.

The focus in returning to the office is re-establishing our team culture, that teamwork vibe and building a sense of belonging and unity. My son was nervous about returning to school but after a few weeks back in the playground, he’s reminded of the joy of having his mates around him all day. And that’s the feeling we want to create with our return to office work. While working from home is great, we want everyone to enjoy and contribute to a culture of being together. We’re confident it will go well and wish you luck for your own move back to new normal.