As COVID cases are dropping and the vaccines are available, companies are looking to see when (if?) they are going to bring people back to offices. There are likely to be all kinds of flavors of this, ranging from:
- We want everybody back, Monday through Friday.
- We need some people back full time, others can still WFH.
- Everyone needs to be in the office 2-3 times a week and WFH the rest.
- Everyone can stay WFH, but those who prefer to come in can.
- Everyone stays WFH
And these don’t include flexible hours, people staying part-time, etc. There are going to be a LOT of models. There is no one best way for every company, but there are some consistent steps you will want to consider as you manage work schedules changes (again). These include:
- Consider ALL of your stakeholders. This means listening not just to executives who feel that people are more productive at the office or the employees who feel that they are missing out on promotional opportunities by working from home. Be sure that your support staff (HR, IT, security, etc.) is also in a position to support those who are coming back (or staying home).
- Be clear to everyone about your reasons for the schedule changes. If you have data that supports that teams are more productive in the office, then share it. If you have data that shows that people are still getting promoted at the same rate during WFH, share that, too. And don’t forget health department data on infections, positivity rates, etc. Use good information, rather than anecdotes, drive your decisions and communicate about the data.
- Track metrics of success and adjust the schedules as necessary. Whether it is what was mentioned above, rate of infections, use of PTO, turnover, absenteeism, or something else, have conversations about what success looks like. Then measure progress towards it. The data may allow you to accelerate your plans or alter them in some other way.
- Check in with your stakeholders as the revised policies are implemented. Sometimes we think that people who initially support change will always be in favor of it and those who are resistant stay that way. Keep asking stakeholders what they need to continue to support, or to become supportive, of the changes.
- Communicate the metrics. Whether it’s through an online dashboard or a regular e-mail, keep people apprised of progress (or lack thereof). Transparency helps to control the rumor mill and provides reasons for altering the initial plan.
Going back to “normal” requires the same level of change management skill as implementing something different. Be sure that you apply these techniques to help implement and manage schedule changes as you navigate through COVID.
Going back to “normal” work schedules is going to take as much change management skills as WFH did. Here are some thoughts on implementing the new normal more effectively.
OK, let’s all take a deep breath and say it out loud, “Work from home is not going to be temporary.” There, we did it. Now let’s talk about it.
We need to acknowledge that WFM is not going to be one size fits all from an organization’s standpoint. Some companies will look for as many people to return to the office as soon as possible as their CEOs swear that productivity and creativity can only occur face-to-face. Others, after realizing the cost savings of reducing their office footprint, reduced stress of employees not commuting, and maintained productivity will encourage it going forward.
Eight or so months into WFM, we also need to acknowledge that it is not for everyone. Some people (well organized introverts) thrive in the environment while others (people with a high need for affiliation) struggle in it. And there are many who are in-between. They would like to interact and work with others a few days a week, but appreciate those days where they can work with fewer distractions and in a safer environment.
Given these variables, how can we adapt to WFM or make it work for organizations and employees? Let’s walk through some big steps and see where the key points are.
- Organization Design. This is the time for companies to look at their WFM experiences and make policy decisions. Some of this should be business driven (Are we productive with what we are doing now? Do COVID-19 impacts on our business support how much space we have?). There should be employee input via a survey, or some other method, that allows everyone to have his/her/their voice heard. Don’t assume you know what everyone wants and be sure to stay away from just a couple of anecdotes. From this info you can then develop go forward policies. Oh, and don’t worry—not everyone is going to like the new policies. Just like before COVID-19 when there were people who wanted to work from home but were not allowed to.
- Implementing Change. Most WFM policies I’ve seen have been done on the fly—which is not a criticism. Rather, most employees saw the impact of COVID-19 so there was not the resistance to change that we normally see when organizations choose to pivot. However, as you transition from a reactive state to the new normal one, you’ll need to use your change management techniques, such as:
a. Be transparent—describe to employees the data you gathered and why WFM policies are either going back to pre-COVID-19 or changing.
b. Describe the benefits of the change from an employee’s perspective.
c. Have resources (technical, informational, skill development, etc.) available that support the change.
d. Measure the impact of the new policies so you can make future decisions based on data.
- Recruitment. Once a WFM policy is in place, you’ll want to be able to describe it clearly when attracting new talent. Your WFM requirements, or lack thereof, will be attractive to some and repellent to others. And that’s OK. Just be sure to let people know what they are in for.
- Selection. Remember before when I talked about which people thrive or suffer in WFM? This is important information to use when selecting new employees going forward. You will want to review your job descriptions and competency models to be sure they include any changes that would come from your WFM policies. For instance, if you are moving to a model that allows or mandates a lot of working from home, you will want to include characteristics like need for autonomy in your selection protocols. Be sure to validate any tools you use to measure this and other skills/abilities/personal characteristics.
- Training and Development. Despite the occasional video conference faux pas, I think most of us were pleasantly surprised how quickly people gained skills at using this software. Those in the learning and development area have also adapted their materials and approaches to video. You should be providing training on how to get the most out of not only video conferencing technology, but other tools that allow people to collaborate across distances. In a WFM environment, some people will benefit significantly from instruction on how to be productive in a home environment. Also, continue to keep up with professional and leadership development so that people do not stagnate. There are a lot of great online training experiences out there and without travel expenses the true cost has gone down.
- Performance Management. An employee concern about WFM has been, “How will I get promoted?” The manager’s concern is, “How will I get productivity?” Of course, these two things go together. WFM has exposed poorly designed performance goals and objectives. It is likely that your business has changed post-COVID. It is a good time to revisit your performance standards and measurements as well. As before, develop S.M.A.R.T. goals, but now with an extra emphasis on measurable, especially if people are participating in WFM. This helps to minimize lack of face time issues as employees can more easily demonstrate their performance.
- Coaching and Feedback. WFM minimizes spontaneous interactions between employees and their managers. This means that they both need to make additional efforts to schedule conversations to stay in touch. This will help with the visibility employees want and the accountability managers are looking for. There should be some structure to these conversations so that they cover current performance as well as career development.
- Managing the Change. Whether you think we are closer to the beginning or the end of the pandemic, we can all agree that there are going to be more changes to business and WFH before it is behind us (e.g., another wave of cases, kids going back to school or back to distance learning, etc.). Just as you want to gather employee and other stakeholder information when forming policies, you will want keep track of how attitudes towards the policies, the pandemic, and the business shift. Acting on these issues as necessary will help you maintain or increase employee engagement and make policy adjustments.
Our work lives have always involved managing change and COVID-19 has made this more pronounced. It is now time to do so in a more thoughtful and forward looking way. We can do this more effectively by recognizing that some changes, including WFH, are not temporary adjustments, but are permanent in one form or another. HR benefits employees and organizations when it recognizes the wide-spread impact of WFH and adjusts its practices and manages the change effectively.