We may not know when, but we can plan
What companies can do to prepare for a return to work post COVID-19
Here is a problem you might not know you have yet: We’re going return to work.
Be it in the office or some version of what we had before. We can’t know exactly when, but we do know for certain it will happen, and it will certainly be different.
For those of us in non-essential services, that could mean leaving the home office and returning to the workplace or starting to look for employment after being laid off or put on furlough.
Whatever our situation, our return won’t look entirely the same as it did before COVID-19. It will feel strange and unfamiliar, and many will look to their employers to provide a sense of comfort and guidance on how to navigate the journey back.
Organizations – and their employees – have learned a lot in a very short time during the wild ride of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve learned to adjust how we work in real time. We’ve learned how to deliver services virtually and how to deliver a wide range of goods – from food and all varieties of retail products, to alcohol and restricted goods, to medical advice and education. We’ve learned how to pivot our manufacturing to necessary supplies.
We’ve learned how to integrate our personal lives into our professional lives, tolerating (even welcoming) restless children, barking dogs and keyboard-sitting cats into conference calls. We’ve learned how to manage our households, while at the same time working, caregiving and educating.
A lot of what we’ve learned through the course of this COVID-19 period will follow us into the new normal, whenever that comes to pass. It’s important to acknowledge that it won’t happen overnight — or even all at once.
We should expect changes to be transitional, over several months, as companies phase in their workforce. Not only will the phase-back be conditional on businesses having the revenue to bring back their teams, but caregivers, parents and others may have a longer road ahead as schools remain closed, summer camps are possibly unable to open and restrictions on the immunocompromised potentially linger, leaving them still unable to safely venture into populated public spaces.
As a result, the initial cohort returning to work may be a significantly reduced portion of the overall workforce and the feasibility of a permanent work-from-home opportunity may become a reality.
In the coming weeks, organizations need to consider what adaptations they’ve made that can – and should – stick, while balancing productivity within their business.
Decision-makers should be sitting down now with human resources to work through transitional and long-term employee policies. This whole situation may be unprecedented, and those who have an employee-first work culture and willingness to be nimble are already at an advantage. But that doesn’t mean that you too can’t look ahead and adapt.
What is being asked of companies isn’t new. We’ve done it before, building out return to work procedures for maternity, long-term disability and other leave policies.
But this will require identifying an authentic approach for each business to create policies that address both a return to work and necessary contingencies, should we face a backslide in the spread of the virus that requires renewed quarantine measures after the initial wave passes.
Above all, to make this work, organizations must ensure they have a firm grasp on the communications required — leading up to the transition, throughout all the phases, and into a fully post-pandemic workplace. Communication that pre-empts and anticipates the needs and concerns of employees will go a long way in ensuring all employees remain connected and committed, regardless of where they fit in the phases of the return.
Preparedness, along with regularity, consistency and empathy in communications will win the day in the recovery phase of this crisis.
Erika Barootes, Betsy Hilton, and Melissa Lantsman hold senior roles at Enterprise Canada, a national communications and public relations firm based in Toronto with offices in Edmonton, Hamilton, and Niagara. They bring over a decade of experience in corporate communications, issues management, and working with clients to develop a strong corporate culture.