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Returning to the Offices We Left

Adam Stoltz
With offices beginning to reopen, now is the time to address the challenges people will face when returning to hastily abandoned workplace environments. There will be nothing normal about the months ahead.

Space planning is the relatively simple part. We can easily accommodate health screening areas and physical distancing. It’s clear and quantifiable.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a massive toll on people’s mental health and well-being. Many are anxious about coming back to the office. Planning for their emotional and psychological needs is the harder, more ambiguous part. And now is not only the time to plan—it’s the time to act.

For some, this could feel like returning to the scene of a fire, with all the associated trauma and potential post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They may see calendars and magazines from 2020, discover stale energy bars in desk drawers and find scraps of paper filled with long-forgotten scribbles. All this could trigger disturbing memories.

Here are steps you can take to help people make the transition back into the office.

Be empathetic. Understand that your employees are making tough decisions about more than just their return to the office. They also are figuring out how to attend to their family responsibilities and resume their social and philanthropic lives. Some are dealing with the added pressures that come with making decisions about caring for older or younger family members.

Clean and prepare the office space: People shouldn’t be instantly reminded of how suddenly they departed in 2020. Former desk neighbors may have left the company. Sadly, some may have passed away. Replace withered plants with new ones. Clients and projects highlighted on the walls may be old news. Create a blank canvas throughout the office. Then give it a “fresh coat of paint” with new graphics displaying current information or projects.

Avoid making long-term policy decisions. Ask your employees about how often they want to be in the office or how comfortable they will be with commuting. But don’t hold them accountable for their initial decisions. Be patient and let them ease into their “new normal” before developing an understanding around long-term commitments.

Don’t overschedule people’s time in the office. Be open-minded about how and where they will work. If it’s possible to maintain physical distancing in your office without it, steer clear of flex systems like “A” days and “B” weeks. If your goal is to reassure people that they have options about where they work, don’t mandate strict rules about how they must use that flexibility. People’s feelings and minds will change. Client meetings will arise. Plan a flexible program that you can continuously modify based on employee feedback.

Do focused surveys. To gauge what your people are thinking (and feeling), conduct regular surveys. Make them targeted by asking fewer questions, more often, to fewer people at a time. Longer surveys take more time to prepare and analyze, and you need to act quickly. Just make sure the survey sample sizes and distributions are representative of your entire organization.

There are no precedents to follow or rulebooks to consult. No single organization—even those getting the headlines—will have all the right answers for post-pandemic return-to-office policies and protocols. You won’t, either. It’s OK to be upfront and transparent about this. Embrace the disruption. Reset and move forward—together.

Adam Stoltz is the director of HOK’s global Consulting group.

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