Stay Remote: 5 Alternative Approaches to Return-to-Work Planning

When the current pandemic started impacting how we work, the internet was plagued with every tip, trick, and article about how to work remotely. Two months later, we see the same trend with return-to-work (RTW) plans. That was quick.

Did the pandemic disappear? Has everyone had a test to see if they are asymptomatic? Is there a vaccine I may have missed that is available to everyone right now?

The answer is “no” to these questions. And until it is “yes,” then the answer to whether people (who have the ability to work from home) should return to work will also be “no.” During this time, employers should make sure they aren’t adding more stress for people during these very unfortunate and uncertain times.

After reading a myriad of articles on how to return to work – which by the way, are great once there is a vaccine and proper testing, it is even more important to focus on the needs of your employees – your customers and overall well being of each other as humans.

Why do I think RTW plans are very premature right now? While the best intentions are there in creating these plans, we don’t know what we don’t know as we are learning and evolving every day with this pandemic and what it has done, what it can do, and how it has impacted every one of us in so many endless ways.

Here are my top 5 alternatives to RTW planning for companies that have the ability to work remotely.

1. Implications of people returning to an office: A Story and Step One

Many office buildings are empty, with lots of rent still to be collected. Highways are also empty except for essential workers. Our air has gotten cleaner while our country has gotten sicker, and even though many areas have flattened the curve, we have the opportunity to plan ahead with logic and reason. Corporations shifted to remote work overnight without much thinking – just acting, and now we have the ability to think again what is best for your employees and companies in the long run.

What I have seen in the RTW plans are checklists for everything to implement into the office with cleaning, handwashing, social distancing, temperature checks, and who can and cannot return to work. What is missing from all this is data. Data of your employees is not just how they are feeling – but how do they get to work, what is going on at home with their families, what it will actually mean for them to return to work, and why. All this data is missing.

So, let’s take a look at one employee – her name is Ann. Ann works in a city with a 30-minute commute that she typically takes mass transit to get into the office. She works on the 30th floor in an open floor plan with over 500 employees across multiple floors and levels. Ann is also a mother of 4 children and summer camps are still a big unknown for childcare for her children, and her partner is an essential worker and has already been quarantined to a side of the house where time with the family is limited based on the job.

Now Ann may need to go back into work. If she doesn’t based on her situation, will she be judged? Even if Ann is able to find a work-around to her scenario before she even gets into the office, she is dealing with public transportation, building doors, elevator buttons, and sits in an open floor plan right next to the elevator. Conference space and bathrooms were already limited prior to COVID-19 due to mass hiring, and it will be an even bigger problem now. What if someone sneezes and has not been wearing their mask appropriately? What if someone doesn’t wash their hands accordingly to remove the germs? What if someone does not take social distancing seriously?

And now Ann is even more stressed out – yes, like many she has been locked in at home for months – in the security of her own home – can she trust the security of others and how many places she can be infected – because while temperature checks are nice – they do not tell you if someone is asymptomatic. And no one will know until another person is sick. My plea to all our HR Heroes – is this what do you want to do every day? Put people at risk; teach people social distancing in the workplace; hand out masks; take complaints from people not taking this pandemic seriously; roll the dice if someone does get sick in the office and what the insurance and legal issues will be that you will be held accountable for way beyond EEOC and OSHA?  If this is really what you want to do is play a guessing game with people’s lives – a COVID cop, then have very unproductive fun. My solution and a first step for you to take is to put all return to work plans in a folder to review in 2021 and keep your employees home, especially if they have the ability to work from home. So, step one is saying NO to RTW plans in 2020.

2. What can you do to help others now – think Diversity and Inclusion

People are stressed and tired from COVID-19 and our new normal. Some love working from home and have embraced it. Others are mixed as it has been difficult, especially with children being home too. Others plain hate it and feel completely unproductive. It is a mixed bag of everything based on everyone’s situation, which by the way – we really weren’t good at to begin with. Yes, we actually have been terrible in understanding people and their situation, and instead, we just write policies and wonder why we have diversity and inclusion issues, stereotypes and unconscious bias in the workplace that has been rampant since the beginning of time.

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We used policy as our own facemask and gloves to hide behind the reality of our diversity instead of understanding the workforce. Therefore, begin to ask your employees what they need for the rest of the year until there is adequate testing and a vaccine. Do they need a better workstation at home? Do they need help with their kids with activities and learning? Do they need access to mental health experts? Ask them what they need during this time to keep them safe, healthy, and well. I suggest running a confidential survey and begin to collect the themes for what they need and how you can budget this into your workforce plan for 2020 and 2021. By asking your employees, you are already helping them because you care, and you will continue to build their trust in this very untrusting world.

3. Ask them what they need to learn

As our new normal evolves every day, our skillsets need to evolve too. Shifting to a remote workforce impacts everything from communication, collaboration, clarity, ways we work and ways we need to continue to work together – it is putting the limelight on all the soft skills that we needed yesterday that we really need today. By asking employees what they need to learn in this new normal from management skills, tech skills, critical thinking, problem-solving, tool skills, and more, it again will alleviate stress when you are providing constant learning to help them in their jobs. Again, running a quick survey and assessment will provide you the data you need to bring in the solutions they are asking for to help them in their jobs and continue to learn and sharpen their skills in these new times. Learning something new alleviates much of the stress of the unknowns, and it is something that is everyone’s control – to learn. We cannot control COVID right now, but we can control what we learn from it and others to work and manage ourselves each day. Keep them learning, upskill everywhere for today, so we can predict the tomorrow.

4. Cancel all performance reviews.

Yes, you heard this right – cancel all performance reviews for the year (and forever) and instead begin constant conversations with your employees. As a former CHRO – I have wanted to sunset annual performance reviews since I started in HR 20 years ago. Why? They are pointless. They are pointless because providing annual or bi-annual feedback to an employee when they could have been learning every day to improve their performance is not human to anyone. It is an over-engineered process of taking feedback from everyone and putting into a yearly review – and the worst part of it is that you review someone and provide feedback and then give them NO tools to improve themselves. It is like getting a report card with no learning. With COVID, it is an opportunity to get rid of performance reviews forever and begin to form a learning culture of constant conversations with actual actionable improvement areas with learning resources. Managers and leaders should be providing feedback on a weekly and monthly basis when the feedback is real, and action can be taken to actually improve the outcomes. People are already stressed out enough, and goals will be missed as everyone has a different situation at home. In summary, kill performance reviews and bring life back to your employees with feedback and learning objectives. This is a vaccine to sustain your people – inject it now!

5. Data is the beacon to our future.

COVID data has been telling us what to do to keep ourselves and others safe. And data will play a major role in how we navigate the future of work with and without COVID. Data has always been key for employee engagement but often ignored due to corporate goals and ensuring everyone is executing on the goals in a timely manner. When we miss those goals – which we often do – no one looks at the data of their employees and actually considers what it means for the health and well being of the company and all of its employees. You will need data even more now in this COVID world that needs to be at the forefront of any company – your people data will guide the path to how you create goals and how you execute on them. If you are not using data tools – begin too. A simple homemade survey can go a long way, which is a high output, low effort and low-cost way for you to understand your people and to implement that data into any organizational goals and structures to win with your people and their diversity, potential and ongoing education.

To recap all of this in a simple and reinforceable way

  1. Put your Return to Work plans in a drawer. Dust them off when there is adequate testing and a vaccine. Seriously, stop writing these plans and focus on your employees and what they need now more than ever.
  2. Diversity should be at the top of your list for all your employees as we all have diverse backgrounds, but now we have diverse implications for what COVID is doing to us, and you need to understand so you are not boxing your employees out of potential – but instead taking their diversity and including it into an agnostic plan of potential for others with data and ongoing education.
  3. Implement learning plans into everything you do for your employees. Provide training, coaching, and any education to help them help you. And provide them the mental wellness opportunities that they need now more than anything.
  4. Kill performance reviews. It is time. Much like COVID is an annoying, exhausting and a tricky virus with many unknowns – so are performance reviews. We have a vaccine for this – it is called sunsetting them immediately, which will healthen the learning and outcome immune system of us.
  5. Before you make any decision – have the data to back it up. People data has always been your path to company growth and accomplishments. Now use it – or lose your people, brand, and so much more. Data is the beacon we need to survive and get to tomorrow. Find it, analyze it, and use it in your corporate goal plans.

If you are a company that is doing well in these times, this five-point plan should be easy. So, move forth. If you are a company that is getting by, start taking monthly office rent money and begin to allocate it to your employees and work on canceling or deferring leases in the short and long term. Use the money that you had to acquire talent in retaining talent. Use excess company snacks, coffee, and anything else that is not being used right now to give to your employees. There are ways – go into your budgets and find them.

Lastly, HR – you have finally been given credit as the HR Heroes you have always been prior to COVID. Do not lose this opportunity by creating RTW policies and instead continue to be actual strategic business partners for your leadership and all employees. You have a voice. You have a seat. Don’t lose it with policy. Be you, be true and ask your employees what they need and give it to them. You are nothing without them – so cherish every moment you have with them by helping them. As your help will help them and they will help others – your customers, your brand and your mission and your long term company potential – and probably profitability.

To close, diversity, data, and education is your path. Spend your time here and not being the COVID workforce police. It is our time to put it all together with the potential of all your people and knowing their needs. Give them this and they will give it back.

Kristy has 15 years of experience as a Strategic Human Resource Leader, Change Manager and Organizational Development Expert. She has served in senior leadership positions throughout her career – most notably with Pearson Education and Constant Contact. Kristy brings a big picture perspective and a hands-on, tactical approach to her leadership that she is now bringing to life with GoCoach (where she is the CEO & Founder).Kristy’s goal is to help and educate companies to meet their ultimate goals by empowering their employees to take ownership of their career.

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