If you’re like most companies with an office environment, more of your employees are starting to work from the office on a more regular basis. You may be mandating that all employees return by a set date. Or actively encouraging employees to work more days in the office. Or you may be fully committed to a long-term hybrid work environment. Regardless of your long-term plans, if you’re bringing more people back now, you have an opportunity to do things differently – and better – than before. 

But those improvements will only happen if you are intentional about how you reengage with your employees at the workplace. We’ve previously written about how competency management can support your hybrid work environment. Here are five tips for building a successful return-to-office plan.

#1: Adopt a Phased-in Approach for your Return-to-Office Plan

Fifteen months ago, most offices abruptly closed their doors to employees and customers. Now, we have the chance to create a more controlled, unhurried return.

Some employees are eager to return to the office environment. Bring them back first. They will help to test – and prove – your safety measures. They’ll help you identify unnecessary bottlenecks such as overcrowding at coffee machines or lack of hand sanitizer at key flow points or limited access to essential office supplies. They’ll also help to re-establish a positive vibe at work as they eagerly connect with colleagues who are just as happy to be back. 

Give plenty of notice to later waves of employees. Those who must arrange for childcare, elder care, pet sitting, or other practical matters will appreciate the wiggle room. The extra time will also help hesitant employees to mentally prepare for their return. 

#2: Foster Uniquely In-Person Activities

Even if you’ll maintain some hybrid work activities, encourage in-office connections and engagement for those who come in. Balancing in-person connections with work from home (WFH) engagement does NOT mean ignoring the many benefits of working in a physically shared workspace. Most business office environments are better equipped than home offices to provide comfortable, productive working conditions. It’s also easier to build human connections with scheduled and informal conversations at work. 

This Sapling guide suggests ringing a sales gong when a new goal is reached, so people can cheer from their desks without congregating too closely. Substitute personal pizzas for extra large ones on Pizza Friday, so people can eat wherever they feel most comfortable. Or host a socially distant BBQ for outdoor food and conversations. 

Be creative in how you encourage in-person activities. Keep your company culture in mind. And balance those with work from home (WFH) engagement opportunities for those still working remotely. 

#3: Offer Virtual AND In-Person Workforce Training 

This Forbes article reminds us of the importance of investing time and attention into equipping your workforce with the tools and skills necessary to succeed. It touches on virtual-first models, which remain one valuable way to learn.

But remember the value of in-person learning, too. We learned much over the past year, including the many challenges that teachers faced when tasked with educating young people in hybrid environments. One teaching approach, born of necessity but nearly universally scorned, is the hybrid model where a teacher has students in the classroom and others at home – all participating in a virtual learning experience. Even those in the same room raised their hands online and asked their questions via chat, to include all participants. This was a missed opportunity for the in-person students to enjoy the benefits of direct learning from the teacher. 

As more employees return to the office, revisit your corporate training plan and update skills assessments. Look for learning opportunities where in-person, hands-on learning is particularly valuable. Set up the classroom so in-person participants can interact with the facilitator directly, not solely through a virtual platform.  

#4: Communicate. Listen. Prepare to Adapt Your Return-to-Office Guidelines

In times of transition or crisis, there’s no such thing as too much communication. Your transition back to the office is a wonderful opportunity for meaningful, two-way conversations about what happens next.

Certainly, your management team will be communicating your plans. You’ll inform employees about your return-to-office guidelines and clarify what’s expected from their job performance. 

This excellent Harvard Business Review article takes communication for returning to the office one step further, emphasizing a collaborative, listening approach to help employees through the challenges, including: 

  • Listen to [employees’] concerns and disappointment with empathy. Be as transparent as you can about the organization’s reasoning behind the policies being put in place. 
  • Allow people space to grieve. The article explains, “For some, regardless of what level of flexibility you offer, the transition from WFH may represent deeper loss than just control over their time. … No matter how positive “next” may be, allow people space to grieve the loss of whatever this past season has meant for them.”
  • When possible, engage your employees in figuring out how best to balance individual and group needs.

#5: Redefine Your (New) Business as Usual

Even as many employees transition from remote work to office work, there’s no such thing as “back to business as usual” if everyone is not back in the office full time or if many of the ways you operate have changed. It’s time to redefine your NEW “business as usual.” 

Cover your policies about in-office and remote work. Who may return to the office? Who must? How often? 

Be clear about safe and effective ways to serve your customers now. Are in-person customer visits allowed? Are they encouraged? Are they required? How have your travel policies changed?

Revisit job descriptions, performance plans, and training plans to ensure that your employees are aligned to make meaningful contributions to your business. 

One best practice is to revisit and adjust your organization’s competency model. Doing so will help you articulate – across your company – the skills and competencies that are required for jobs. It also provides an important framework that will focus employees and managers on performance and productivity, not on work location.  

Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all perfect return-to-office plan. Create return-to-office guidelines to best align with your business strategy, your culture, and the needs of your employees. Then, be flexible. You’ll likely make some adjustments as more of your workforce settles into office work and/or hybrid environment. 

Are you preparing your return-to-office plan? This Competency Management Toolkit can help you harness competencies to optimize the transition. Or contact us to find out how Avilar’s WebMentor Skills™ can support your effort.

RELATED RESOURCES

5 Advantages of a Competency-Based Approach to Solving Workforce Issues
Stand by Me: The Latest Innovative Employee Retention Strategies
6 Ways Competency Management Can Support Your Hybrid Work Environment
How to Bring the Best Lessons from COVID-19 Back to Work

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