Return to the Workplace During COVID-19: 3 Lessons for Reopening Success


Vaccines haven’t ended the pandemic quite yet. Our summer of freedom turned into a summer of false hopes. Now, with the Delta variant raging, businesses are examining their return-to-the-workplace plans.

Some companies reopened their offices this summer, but the decisions were complex and multi-faceted. Other companies are delaying their reopening for weeks or months.

Google, Ford, Apple, Capital One, and more are now delaying office reopenings until 2022. According to a late-August Gartner surveyOpens a new window , up to 66% of companies will delay office reopening due to COVID-19 variants. Returning to the office can be an opportunity to build trust and rapport among employees, but only if done correctly.

See More: Navigating Workplace Safety in a COVID-19 World

 Why Reopening Matters

I knew employee feedback was critical to determine our return-to-the-workplace policy.

We reopened our Louisville, Colorado, office in August 2021. But that reopening was several months in the works.

As a customer and employee feedback platform, Alchemer was well-positioned to use surveys and workflows to better understand its own workforce. But I wanted to go beyond the surveys and ensure we had a finger on the pulse of our workforce.

Returning to the workplace is a chance for companies to mark a milestone — to transition from our pandemic roles to something more familiar. Something better. I wanted our reopening to be a chance to build trust between executives and employees.

While our reopening wasn’t perfect, there are a lot of lessons from our reopening that apply to other companies. Three things that ensured our reopening success were a flexible model, a feedback-centered approach, and plenty of time for transition. Companies need these three ingredients to properly craft the right return-to-the-workplace approach.

A Flexible Model

When the discussion first began around the return-to-the-workplace, Harvard Business Review outlined five operating models on a spectrum from in-person to remote. We outlined several models, like “Fully Remote” or “Clubhouse” (a hybrid option based around collaboration), on our return-to-the-workplace webinarOpens a new window .

No matter which model your organization chooses, building in flexibility will help your team avoid pitfalls in advance.

Lesson 1: Build flexibility into your model.

People work differently, and the pandemic brought this into focus quickly for HR teams. Forget about a “one-size-fits-all” mentality; those days are gone. The truth is that flexibility looks different to everyone.

Instead, HR teams can ensure an appropriate level of flexibility by outlining expectations. At Alchemer, the pandemic encouraged us to be even more results-oriented. We rely on people directors to evaluate work, in the office or not, so we empowered our directors to determine office attendance based on a results-oriented approach. Other companies like Amazon are adopting similar flexible, director-led modelsOpens a new window .

“We’re intentionally not prescribing how many days or which days — this is for Directors to determine with their senior leaders and teams.” — Amazon CEO Andy Jassy.

“We expect that there will be teams that continue working mostly remotely, others that will work some combination of remotely and in the office, and still others that will decide customers are best served having the team work mostly in the office,” said Jassy.

Once you determine the right model for your company, empower directors to communicate your expectations. Use those expectations to determine the appropriate amount of office time needed each week.

See More: Putting the Human at the Center of HR on Cloud

Gather Feedback To Increase Trust

It’s typical for executives and employees to have differing opinions, and the pandemic highlighted those occasional disconnects. Everyone wants to be heard, especially as it pertains to a return-to-the-workplace.

Executives tend to think their organization has expressed a preference for pre-pandemic work conditions (71%), but only 50% of employees agreeOpens a new window . Don’t fight the disconnect — face it and embrace it.

Lesson 2: Gather feedback and listen.

When considering reopening our office, Alchemer executives heard push-back from junior staff. We set up fireside chats starting in March 2020 that covered difficult topics, and we were as open as possible about likely potential scenarios.

Just the act of sharing promoted trust. Even staff who didn’t agree with our decisions knew why we made those decisions.

We also got personal. Our CEO David Roberts shared about his time at home with his wife and two sons. He communicated his thoughts about COVID-19’s impact on society, not just our business. We all grew to share our experiences, and that sharing was a cathartic process.

While fewer than half of employeesOpens a new window report that leadership takes their perspectives into consideration when making decisions, we were openly soliciting that feedback from our own employees. Our executives still made the final decision, but no one was confused about whether their voice was heard.

Time for Transition

Google has committed to a 30-day planning periodOpens a new window between ending pandemic work conditions and their official return to work date. Lyft CEO Logan Green said the company plans to use the weeks after the holiday break as a settling-in buffer time period for their offices.

Lesson 3: Plan for change management.

We started communicating about a possible return to Alchemer staff in May. In June, we shared tentative plans for returning to work by focusing on new workspaces and opportunities. By July, we’d determined that directors were best positioned to manage the final details of return-to-the-workplace, like the exact number of days in the office or desk location. This led to an official return in mid-August when most teams were using the space most of the time.

Companies like Lyft are providing transition time for employees, utilizing slower business months to allow for the change management required to fully move back into the office.

“[Lyft] is extending the work-from-home period by six months ‘to provide a buffer of several weeksOpens a new window after the winter holiday for team members to settle into their assigned offices,’ according to CEO Logan Green.”

See More: The Future Office: 6 Steps To Retrofit Workspaces To Promote Hybrid Collaboration

The Worst of Times Can Bring Out the Best in People

Flexibility, communication, and transition time were key for a successful reopening of the Alchemer office. Soliciting feedback and listening empathetically were skills we practiced every day, before the reopen and afterward. And these tactics helped us craft a return-to-the-workplace solutionOpens a new window , using the familiar survey and workflow tools that make us popular with customers.

We’re proud of the way we’ve grown as an organization. Consider whether your organization can gain trust and build rapport during your own return-to-the-workplace transition.

What steps have you taken to ensure a smooth return to the office? Share with us on LinkedInOpens a new window , FacebookOpens a new window , and TwitterOpens a new window .