COVID-19: Facilitating a consolidated return back to the office

An empty office

Countries are at very different stages of returning to the new ‘normal’ as we move from pandemic to endemic. Many organisations are increasing office capacities, as staff return to full or hybrid office / remote working conditions, which will require guidance. What we will see will be a sliding scale of return, dependent on the organisation and the employees. To manage this, organisations should support employees across the wider organisation to attain a proper level of functionality through the provision of information and resources. This requires the establishment of planning and management arrangements, which are accepted and understood by the whole organisation.

In this latest insight from 4C Strategies, Principal Consultant Ben White looks at some of the challenges that we will face in `returning´ to the office, and provides some perspectives on what organisations should consider in their planning and communications to staff.

  • Before we identify and address some of these challenges it is worth reminding ourselves of the different phases of a crisis – all crises have distinct phases, and each phase raises its own uniquely complex challenges. The BSI Standard for crisis management identifies six phases:

  • Pre-crisis – capability building identifying, equipping and training the crisis management team

  • Response phase – understanding what happened, defining objectives / strategies and obtaining / committing resources

  • Consolidation and stabilisation – Stopping the situation from deteriorating further and building a stable platform for recovery.

  • Recovery phase – putting in place solutions and resources to remediate the crisis

  • Return to normality – transitioning into a stable operating environment

  • Post crisis – learning from the crisis, rebuilding / improving response capabilities and preparing for the next crisis.

So the key question is: how do we plan for a relatively quick return to this new sliding scale of normality and deal with the challenges that it brings?

Below we have listed some of the more common challenges:

  • Assessing current status. How does our business look following the crisis, how have we fared? All businesses have been impacted in some way by the crisis, some have even had to deal with the added issues of the Suez Canal blockage that brought added strains on the supply chain, while the recent rise in fuel costs is eating revenues. As with any crisis it is essential to manage business and finances carefully.
  • Employee availability. Who is available to return to work? Where are all our people currently and do we know who can continue to work from home for longer periods and who is actually available (and willing) to return to the place of work?
  • Opening up workplaces. Organisations need to reconsider their day-to-day management, space allocation and timings as many meetings continue to be held online. Will new guidelines be imposed by building management, what hygiene equipment will they provide and what will we need to provide?
  • International operations. Major challenges remain with the impacts on the supply chain and travel between one country and another. Countries are in very different stages of response, where we can travel and what restrictions we face will vary from country to country for some time.

Once we have understood these challenges we must think about some planning assumptions or core principles for returning to work. These planning assumptions can then be used as the basis for selecting options and recovery strategies. We have come up with a few suggestions below:

  • Organisations need to understand the full capability that they currently have at their disposal.
  • Flexibility and adaptability are the key skills required. Results will have to be continuously looped or mapped back to the objectives, which will evolve over time, with the outcomes measured for success.
  • New waves may arise that force people back to remote working conditions. Protocols must be kept in place to enable a quick return if necessary.
  • Organisations will need to develop safe working practices.
  • Organisations will need to reassure staff members and stakeholders that the arrangements deployed are appropriate and effective.
  • So what should organisations be doing?

  • Recognise the complex, dynamic and protracted nature of returning to a new normal and the changing needs of affected employees and the wider organisation over time.

  • Involve the whole organisation with openness and transparency. It is most effective when people from all levels in the organisation are involved.

  • Human resources or the personnel department should have a major role in all levels of decision-making which may influence the well-being of the employees, it should not just be left to senior management.

  • Provide a comprehensive and integrated framework for managing all potential incidents in addition to returning to the office and ensure it is sufficiently flexible.

  • Continue to work with continuity management (supply/personnel) and risk mitigation, building organisational resilience to face other crises and incidents.

  • Start collating all those lessons identified over the last two years and use as the basis to review and update plans and procedures.

  • If not already done so, then start conducting debriefs to identify the lessons learned and to look forward as to how these can improve both a future pandemic response but also carry across to the next crisis or emerging threat.

We offer end-to-end crisis management training covering everything from capability development to evaluation, debriefing and lessons management. Find out more about these, and how to train staff to deliver structured debriefing sessions.

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