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The Time To Prepare For The Post-Pandemic Workplace Is Now. Here's Where To Start

Jeff Miller

Chief Learning Officer and Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness, Cornerstone OnDemand

This article originally appeared on Forbes HR Council.

It can be hard to imagine, but there is a light at the end of this COVID-19 tunnel. Businesses will eventually reopen, and employees will return to their workspaces. But we won’t see a complete return to normal. Workplaces will look and feel very different — and in many ways, the experience will be something like a culture shock.

But unlike the shock that came with the start of this crisis, companies have time to prepare their businesses and their employees, examining potential futures and creating contingency plans for each. For example, because there may still be a risk related to the virus as more people return to work, companies can develop a strategy for keeping employees safe in the office.

For this kind of planning to be effective, it needs to start now. The task might seem daunting in the face of uncertainty — not to mention the host of urgent matters leadership teams are addressing on an almost daily basis as the situation evolves. But considering reentry must be on every leader’s priority list so that the business is able to respond quickly and decisively (and safely) as restrictions ease.

Most importantly, these measures will help employees feel at ease. They’re ultimately the ones who will determine how quickly a company can adapt to another new normal. By taking proactive steps — from communicating contingency plans to deciding what the new normal office space will look like to providing ongoing support — companies will better support employees through this next adjustment.

Have A Contingency Plan For Every Variable

According to Accenture research, one of the top needs of employees in times of crisis is confidence in the company's ability to navigate the future. "You don’t have to know everything.... A leadership team that looks ahead proactively, and responds rather than reacts, goes a long way toward helping people in volatile times," the researchers wrote in the report.

This is exactly what contingency plans accomplish: spelling out how your company will react to a number of possible futures. For example, what will be your company’s response if the virus reemerges and sends everyone remote again this fall? What if there’s another economic recession? These are the questions employees are already wondering about. Sharing the company’s strategy ("in person" over video, not in an email), even if it’s not all good news, will demonstrate confident leadership and increase employees’ trust in the business.

Redesigning (Or Ditching) The Physical Workplace

Most businesses will reopen before the coronavirus is fully contained — in fact, some already have. For some, that persistent threat of the virus and the comfort with remote work might make the office space obsolete. Experts predict that many employees will want to continue working from home after the initial wave has passed. If a company’s business strategy is compatible with remote work, and if teams were productive while working from home, getting rid of an office is something to consider.

But for those returning to a physical office, they’ll return with a concern about whether the workplace is safe. The once-popular bullpen desks and open floor plan will likely feel too close for comfort. Instead, offices will need to be updated for better hygiene, from positioning desks farther apart to more regularly (and thoroughly) cleaning conference rooms and shared spaces such as kitchens, bathrooms and elevators.

While these changes might make the office feel safer, getting used to this new office space will be an adjustment for employees. Gathering in a smaller conference room might feel uncomfortable. Stopping for small talk in the kitchen might, too. To help navigate this awkwardness, anticipate some of these issues, and set expectations before everyone returns through a video call. This will help prepare employees to adjust and demonstrate that the business values their safety.

Be Prepared For Your Employees To Change After The Pandemic

Everyone has experienced the pandemic differently. Some people, for example, have had a negative experience with remote work: One study on working from home during this crisis found that over 50% of employees feel lonelier and experience increased anxiety. For others, the transition to remote has been welcome, helping them embrace a better work-life balance and more flexibility.

Still, the entire workforce has been affected. The CDC recently issued a warning that the stress caused by this crisis has put people more at risk of developing depression and other mental health issues. Companies should come prepared to offer support, and doing so will require proactive communication. Research shows less than 50% of employees feel that mental health is prioritized at their company. Organizations without mental health benefits should consider adding them; others can boost existing offerings with employee assistance programs that refer workers to therapists and counselors in their communities. Companies should also consider training managers to talk about and normalize mental health at work so that employees feel more comfortable discussing it.

We’re about to enter a new normal, and companies must be ready to adapt. Thorough planning will help them prepare and keep employees’ anxieties in check. Those companies that fail to approach reentry with transparency and empathy could lose what is most crucial to the overall health of their business: the support and trust of their employees.

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