Writing for Harvard Business Review, Nikhil Bhojwani, the founder and managing partner of Recon Strategy, and Deborah Lovich, a senior partner and managing director at Boston Consulting Group, outline six principles for executives to keep in mind when making decisions to reopen their offices.
1. Prioritize your employees' health and well-being
Bhojwani and Lovich write that although those who are vaccinated are less likely to be infected with the coronavirus, rare breakthrough cases are still possible, and the risk to unvaccinated or immunocompromised individuals remains high. Additionally, many employees are experiencing new challenges around childcare, elder care, and mental health.
So, Bhojwani and Lovich encourage executives to consider their employees' well-being, not only by attempting to minimize Covid-19 infections in the office, but also by supporting employees in other areas of life through flexibility, support, or benefits.
2. Be ready to adapt
Bhojwani and Lovich write that managers must adaptable and keep their options open to respond to unpredictable changes during the pandemic.
In particular, Bhojwani and Lovich recommend that leaders are honest about what they don't know when sharing plans about when and how their offices will reopen. Moreover, organizations should have contingencies in place with clear guidelines about how to accommodate sudden changes in plans.
3. Communicate effectively
Bhojwani and Lovich note that sudden changes to plans can also increase anxiety among employees. This means leaders need to communicate clearly with their employees to help reduce anxiety about potential new developments.
For instance, leaders at a large financial services firm told their employees that while they don't know how things would change in the future, they would send notification about any changes to work-from-home policies at least six weeks in advance.
Bhojwani and Lovich also encourage leaders to listen to their employees carefully to understand what they want and how they might react to new decisions. In particular, leaders can foster two-way communication by:
- Organizing employee advisory groups to review or collaborate on future work recommendations
- Frequently checking how employees feel about certain decisions or guidelines
- Regularly asking for suggestions and feedback from employees
4. Rethink what works best for your organization
Although remote work almost doubled during the pandemic, Bhojwani and Lovich write that many leaders may still be worried about how remote work will affect productivity, innovation, or culture.
However, instead of focusing on these fears, Bhojwani and Lovich suggest leaders rethink what could work best for their organizations. For example, what is the most effective way to collaborate over video? Can asynchronous tools such as GoogleDocs be more efficient than synchronous meetings?
Bhojwani and Lovich recommend reaching out to managers who have successfully navigated working remotely during the pandemic to understand what worked best for them. Then, they can share their effective practices with peers, improving the experience of remote work for everyone. According to Bhojwani and Lovich, allowing teams to decide what works best for them helps build a culture of trust and mutual accountability.
5. Reach out to 'Zoom natives'
While Bhojwani and Lovich acknowledge that there are risks to remote work—such as a loss of social interaction—they also say there are ways to counter the downsides.
Specifically, Bhojwani and Lovich encourage leaders to lean on recent college graduates for help. Many of them attended a few months or even a year of college remotely, and they have experience building social connections online. In fact, many of these recently graduated employees may be as comfortable with engaging with others virtually in work meetings as they were in class.
Furthermore, while senior leaders or older employees may be adept at running online meetings, they may still believe that interacting in person is the only way to build relationships. To address this belief, Bhojwani and Lovich recommend pairing younger and older employees together and asking the "Zoom natives" to guide the employees through socializing through remote or asynchronous interactions.
6. Don't rush into the future
According to Bhojwani and Lovich, organizations have already learned a lot about how to work during a pandemic. However, there are still ongoing challenges, and making immediate conclusions about how work should proceed in the future may be premature.
In addition, the "right answer" for an organization and its employees will ultimately depend on context, working styles, and the preferences of team leaders and members.
So, as people plan to go back to the office—or even continue working at home—Bhojwani and Lovich encourage leaders to take an "experimental mindset" and be willing to learn and adjust plans as needed in the face of future developments. (Bhojwani/Lovich, Harvard Business Review, 8/5)