The Keys to a Successful Back-to-Work Transition

by Doug Claffey

Before your return to work transition begins, do this first

The first thing leaders need to do – before any transition plan is communicated to the staff – is to gather employee feedback via a short, targeted survey. This provides the critical data needed to help inform a successful plan.

Think of the return-to-work transition plan in three phases:

  1. Planning input: Human resources, a tiger team, or a combination of both develop a plan to return to the workplace.
  2. Post-decision: Make sure your plan is clear and is without missing spots before you begin to execute.
  3. Post-return: Assess the transition, how it went, where there are hotspots, and what went well.

Capturing employee feedback along the way will help your organization to stay on track and also quickly identify when a pivot may be needed.

It’s also a good idea to pay attention to other organizations that have already begun to transition. Whether they have already gone back to the workplace or have implemented a hybrid model, there’s a lot you can learn from their experience.

Employee feedback plays a vital role in any return to work plan

From the start, it’s important to capture employee feedback while you are formulating your plan. There are two critical factors to consider:  

  • From a demographic perspective, know how many of your employees are at a higher risk of serious complications from COVID. Also, be aware of how many employees are caregivers for people who have complications for COVID. Employees that are immunocompromised or have breathing challenges are in a different risk category than somebody who doesn’t have those circumstances.
  • Childcare status is another factor to consider. It’s one of the biggest pressure points we’ve seen. Employees who are caregivers to school-aged children, particularly in the five- to 10-year old range, require a lot of time and attention. Typically, they’re in school during the work day. But right now, they’re in a homeschooling situation.

Milestones important to the back-to-work transition

There are two important milestones to consider as your transition begins: 1) the planning phase and getting to a decision, and 2) determining when the first phase of the move is going to happen.

You have control over the planning phase and determining when best to communicate it to your workforce. But the move-in date itself has external complications around stay-at-home restrictions and guidelines issued by the local government.

Because you cannot control these externalities, it’s important to be flexible and focus on what is internal to your business. Offer communication such as, “Here’s our plan. Here’s how we’re thinking about those externalities. Here is the phasing if it’s going to be phased.”

Employee feedback topics key to your transition plan

Focus your attention on three key topics as you being your transition:

  1. Productivity: Are people going to be more productive as they come into the office?
  2. Emotions: What emotions are people feeling? These can range from fear to excitement.
  3. Logistics: What are the who, what, and how logistics of returning to the workplace.

Pay close to attention to this one factor

With regard to emotion, it’s really critical to assess the level of fear among that’s out there. You need to make sure you’re checking in with employees and measure that fear factor. We’ve heard from other organizational leaders who have already transitioned their workforce that this can be the risk that bites you.

If employees are fearful of contracting COVID, the way they perceive the workplace is going to be different than others. There’s a very good chance this will create drama throughout your organization. But if you can get out ahead of that, you can really save yourself a headache and also be more productive when you’re making this transition.

Lastly, this the new reality not the new normal

First and foremost, consider this time – and the transition back to work – as the “new reality” rather than “getting back to normal.” Employees will be wearing masks and practicing social distancing. Meetings and collaboration will have to happen differently. Employees may worry that any false step could lead to really dark consequences. That’s not the new normal. It’s the new reality.

Be deliberate. Be thoughtful. Gather feedback and input. Make your employees feel like they’re part of the planning process and that their input matters. And after you’ve communicated the plan and started the rollout, continue to collect their feedback so they feel valued and heard. This is extremely important. Because if you don’t put a lot of thought into it, your business will suffer a significant impact.