Return to Work: How Small Business Owners Can Prepare for Employees to Return

2020 threw everyone a curveball, including small businesses. The rise in COVID-19 cases left most owners in a rush to adapt. Then, with stay-at-home orders and social distancing protocols, an unprecedented number of businesses shifted to remote work.

This shift came as a shock to many employees who were thrown into a blended work and home life, needing to master new software, create a home workspace, and even help kids school from home (in some cases). However, many eventually found they preferred working from home. A recent survey of 17,000 U.S. employees showed that over 75% want to work from home in some capacity after the pandemic ends.

Now that the world is reopening, the big question remains — who will return to the office? Some companies (including Shopify and Facebook) have announced they will continue to allow many workers to work remotely. Meanwhile, others still want to reap the benefits of working together in person.

If you’re a small business owner that wants your employees back in a physical office, you are likely wondering how to prepare, break the news, and handle objections. Below we’ll share 10 tips, but first, let’s take a closer look at the benefits of working in-person vs. teleworking.

How does in-person work benefit small businesses?

When the pandemic caused much of the world to shift to remote work, we heard a lot about the benefits of telecommuting. Work-from-home employees are more productive, they make fewer mistakes, they have fewer sick days, they are more loyal, and they can help businesses cut costs.

But what benefits are sacrificed when the office is left behind? Many CEOs worry about holding leases for unused office space, decreases in innovation, and a loss of distinct company culture. Here’s a closer look at why working together in a physical office can’t be 100% replaced.

Rapid communication

One of the benefits of working together in a physical office is rapid communication between co-workers. You don’t have to wait for an email or Slack reply and you don’t have to schedule a Zoom call to talk. You can just walk over to the person or turn your chair around, say something, and get an instant reply.

That rapid, instantaneous communication can lead to a more connected workforce. When working remotely, there may be things people don’t say because they figure they aren’t important enough for a dedicated email or meeting. Those lost thoughts and ideas are less likely to fall through the cracks in person.

Stronger team connection

The workplace is not only a place for work. Employees are humans, too. They socialize and connect on a deeper level. Many co-workers become very close, spending more hours of the day at work than at home. This camaraderie creates a strong foundation for work projects. While employees can connect remotely, it’s not the same as being in the same room five days per week. In person, they each share in the immersive experience of working in the office with the particular culture that’s been created.

Spontaneous collaboration

When people are together in person, it creates an environment where it’s easier to collaborate spontaneously. Ideas don’t always pop up on-demand when you’re in a one-hour Zoom call. They are more likely to come about when walking to lunch or playing a game of ping pong in the break room. A physical office brings people together during work time and downtime, creating space for inspiration and ideas to strike.

Separation of work and home

While some have enjoyed the perks of working from home like eating healthier, cutting out their commute, and saving on childcare costs, others have found it difficult.

When you work from home, you may face disruptions from family members that make it hard to concentrate. You might also feel the urge to work after hours when you should be focusing on your family. A physical office separates the boundaries of work and home, which can help some be more focused and productive while working, and more relaxed after hours.

Now that you know some of the primary benefits of working from a physical office, let’s look at how to prepare for the transition back.

Reopening: 10 tips to prepare employees to return to work

If you are planning a return to the office, whether full- or part-time, you’ll need more than extra hand sanitizer. Here are 10 tips to help you prepare.

Get feedback from employees:

A lot has changed over the past year so before making any major decisions or announcements, gauge where your employee’s heads are at. By performing a survey, you can collect feedback that helps you understand your employee’s needs and preferences. This can help you strike the right tone and maximize retention as you roll out the return to the office. For example, you can ask questions like:

  • On a scale from 1 to 10, how comfortable do you feel returning to the office?
  • Do you have any concerns about returning to the office?
  • How could we make a return to the office as smooth as possible?

Here’s an example of an employee return-to-work survey.

Create a workplace safety plan:

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) holds employers responsible for providing a safe and healthy workplace, free from hazards that can lead to serious physical harm or death.

With the coronavirus and its variants still present, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) refers employers to consider the OSHA guidelines on preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. These include recommendations such as providing sick leave (medical leave), disinfecting agents, six feet of space between worksites, and personal protective equipment (PPE) in some situations (such as for higher-risk individuals).

After considering employee feedback and the recommended guidelines from health officials, you can build the workplace safety plan that best suits your business. Then, it’s important to share your safety plan steps and policies with your workers. This will help to set clear expectations and ease the questions on their minds.

Be ready for objections:

Some employees may not be ready to return to the office or may not want to ever return. Despite offering accommodations to meet their needs, they may insist on working from home or leaving the company.

As an employer, you should prepare your response to this reaction. What will your policy be for those who don’t want to come back? When will they need to decide? Will it vary for different positions? Will there be any leeway like an option to remain working from home for an extended time? Be sure you have these policies in place before making your announcement.

Give notice early and often:

Going back to a physical office now may be just as shocking as leaving it last year. Many have been working remotely for at least a year, and have adjusted to a new way of life.

Returning will likely involve mental and physical preparations. Some may have to arrange childcare. Others may need to buy a new wardrobe. And others may just need some time to process the change.

Being so, don’t make any knee-jerk decisions. Let employees know at least a month or two in advance of the plans to bring them back. Then, stay in consistent communication with regular updates as the date draws closer.

Prepare a FAQ page:

Most employees will have plenty of questions about what to expect when returning to the office work environment. From updated safety protocols for public health to schedule changes. Creating a frequently asked questions (FAQs) resource where they can go to find answers can support their return. You can start by making a list of the questions you foresee, and then add to it as more concerns come up throughout the process.

Understand ADA restrictions:

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) puts restrictions on the types of medical information you can collect from an employee or job applicant. Before employees come back, it’s wise to be aware of what you can ask when they call in sick (e.g. looking for symptoms of COVID-19) and what’s allowed/disallowed in the office related to medical exams (e.g. temperature checks, COVID tests, etc.).

Review FAQs from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Plan a reorientation strategy:

With everyone back under the same roof, it’s the perfect time to ensure all are on the same page. Plan a reorientation strategy that includes reintroducing your company’s mission, vision, values, culture, and goals.

Everyone surely wandered off a bit during the time apart, so it’s time to relight the fire behind your company culture. Remind them why they are all here, what they are a part of, and what you are working towards together. One of the biggest benefits of being together in person is building a strong company culture so the reunion is the time to kick that off again.

Analyze business travel protocols:

If your business involves employees traveling, that’s another factor you’re going to need to analyze as it comes with increased risk and requirements. Will they be able to travel to the destinations you need them to visit and what procedures will be in place? Will there be new requirements? Are all the trips needed or can some of them be handled remotely? Analyze how business travel will change post-pandemic.

Provide mental health resources:

To help support your employees through this transition, you or your human resources department (if you have one) should provide employees with mental health resources. These can help to support those struggling with any anxiety, fear, depression, anger, burnout, and more stemming from the stressful events of the last year and the transition back.

Consider a hybrid model:

Lastly, going from fully remote to fully in-office may feel drastic to some employees and might not be entirely necessary, depending on your business type. Both working in an office and working from home have shown to have their own respective benefits.

Combining both in a hybrid model may give your business the best of both worlds. Further, giving employees an option to split up their work time between telework and in-person work may be a helpful way to transition back to the office, promoting retention.

Make your return to the office as smooth as possible

The coronavirus pandemic turned the world upside down. Now, we’re returning to some semblance of normalcy with society opening back up. As small business owners, returning to the office in some capacity might be the best move. There’s nothing like face-to-face interactions to build a strong company culture that breeds ongoing creativity and innovation.

However, in some cases, a mix of in-office and teleworking will provide a great balance of well-being, productivity, cost optimization, and team bonding. Either way, these 10 tips can help you prepare return-to-work plans that cater to the needs of both your employees and your business.



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