Organizations around the world are going to be facing even more difficult challenges, once the chaos of Covid-19 passes. One of them being, reintegrating employees who’ve been confined to their homes for the past 2-3 months, back into the workplace. In response to this challenge, United Minds, Weber Shandwick’s management consultancy specializing in organizational transformation launches Workforce Re-entry. An offering designed to help managers and organizations re-integrate employees back into the workplace, as they recover from the impact of COVID-19. Communicate spoke with Stephen Duncan – Managing Director of United Minds, to understand more about this offering and what it entails.
Can you explain in detail about the schematics of Workforce Re-entry?
The response to [the initial outbreak of Covid-19] was relatively straightforward. Many organizations had to think fast, and most of the decisions were made overnight. But as [organizations] begin planning for the re-entry phase, there is a lot of complexity that is going to come along with it. There are going to be many decisions that leaders have to make, and the consequences of making the wrong ones are quite severe.
Workforce re-entry is an offering, that aims at providing holistic answers for organizations- to help them make better decisions about how to conduct their business during this phase of the crisis. The offering helps managers to gain more clarity around questions like –
– When and how should they reopen their office space?
– Who are the employees that are essential to the business, and need to return first?
– How to keep the remaining who are working from home, completely engaged in their work?
This phase of re-entry is going to be the single most challenging task, for managers to handle. The offering helps prepare them for the variety of obstacles that are going to be coming during this phase.
Workforce re-entry brings some well-thought practices from a diverse team of experts. It also draws on experience from our offices in China, who have already navigated through this phase early on. Countries in MEA and in North America are only starting to think through what the re-entry phase is going to look like.
What important insights have you learned from watching China’s reintegration process?
Listening would be the prime insight. Citing on the experience from our offices in China, people’s worries kept changing through the different phases of the crisis. It’s crucial for managers to be listening, to the concerns of their employees, and understand their feelings during this time.
The second would be strong visible leadership within organizations- which involves good communication from leaders to their employees. Our research on employee sentiment, has shown that employees are really impressed at how leaders have reacted to Covid-19, and most of them have developed more trust and confidence in their decisions. There’s a real opportunity for leaders to emerge and genuinely lead their organizations, through very difficult times. One of the insights we’ve learned from China that is also being repeated elsewhere, is how leaders are getting in front of people and being completely visible. These leaders are inspiring their employees with confidence, empathy, passion and that’s extremely important.
The third is communication. It’s important to communicate to your employees during this stage; about the measures being taken to make the office space, a safe environment to work in, along with providing protective equipment such as facemasks and gloves.
What challenges do you expect to face when it comes to reintegrating employees back into the office?
The biggest challenge is going to be building confidence in employees, on the safety of returning to work. In our research we learned that only six percent of employees trust their employer to determine, when it’s safe to bring them back to work. People today are very data literate, so based on the medical data available, they’re forming decisions for themselves on when it’s safe to return to work. It’s important for employers to cite these external references during their case on why it’s safe to return, otherwise risk being perceived by employees as being forced to return.
The second challenge is around the multiple factors which are outside of the employers’ realm of control. Surprisingly, for a lot of organizations, the factors which dictate an employees’ feelings about returning to work have got nothing to do with what happens within the boundaries of where they work. It’s factors such as public transport, child-care, etc. Employers need to be sensitive when they’re dealing with these kinds of factors.
But there are some factors that employers do have control over, such as the facilities in an office building. The measures taken, to provide an extremely safe and secure workplace for employees is something that is in the employer’s control.
The final challenge involves preparing leaders and employees for the process of reintegration. On an individual level, employees have to assess themselves, whether it’s right to go back to work, with all factors taken into consideration. Managers and leaders need to be prepared for their role in bringing people back to work, and also learn to manage hybrid teams for a period of time.
How is this offering different from the normal procedure of reintegrating an employee into the office?
If you look at the kind of crises that organizations are usually responding to, there’s an element of certainty in knowing when they’re going to come to an end. We’re familiar with those types of crises. What makes Covid-19 particularly different -is that there is nothing in any of our living memories, that can be used as helpful reference points in navigating this pandemic. This is also an invisible problem, which plays against some deep-rooted human fears.
Normally, the disruption caused from most natural disasters lasts for a few days or a week. After which, things begin to return to some degree of normality. But with this pandemic, the length of disruption is going to pose a challenge for organizations when it comes to reintegrating them back into the workforce. People have also developed a new set of habits during this period, which they’re going to have to unlearn, as they re-enter the workforce.
On top of that, people are not going to be coming back to the same workspace that they left. They’re not going to come back to an office filled with people, at least for the foreseeable future. And during this time, they’ll learn a new set of habits and ways of working.