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Dyer Brown Architects

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Dyer Brown: "Returning to the Post-Pandemic Workplace in Three Not-So-Easy Steps"

By ccsullivan
May 21, '20 1:03 PM EST
116 Huntington lobby, design by Dyer Brown. Photo by Darrin Hunter
116 Huntington lobby, design by Dyer Brown. Photo by Darrin Hunter

These days, all companies are evaluating their return-to-office scenarios, according to Rachel Woodhouse, NCIDQ LEED AP, Principal and Director of Operations with Dyer Brown, Boston. Presumably leaders of businesses and other organizations are all following the local and national guidelines. For most “non-essential” businesses that are operating reasonably successfully in a remote condition, the current evaluation is clear: We’re just not there yet.

But things are going to get far murkier before all is said and done, and -- whether we realize it or not -- small- to medium-sized businesses are going to need a clear, tailored reentry plan of their own making.

While deferring to local authorities up until now has generally been good practice -- with some notable exceptions making news lately -- make no mistake: The moment will come when we all, as business owners and organizational leaders, will have to interpret guidelines for ourselves, generate a plan that responds to our unique circumstances, and manage the change that all this post-COVID-19 reckoning brings.

In response to these challenges, I offer up Dyer Brown’s own thought process and philosophies on a return to the world of the physical office. Let’s assume for a moment that your remote work situation has been reasonably successful and that your state enters into phase one of the federal guidelines. Now what?

A higher education workplace, design by Dyer Brown. Photo by Darrin Hunter

First, do your homework with the team.

  • Do your organization’s leaders have a real understanding of your team’s experiences? What is work-from-home actually like for them, and can they be productive -- or are they perhaps more productive? Know where their pain points are. Gaining clarity about the good, the bad and the ugly of their experiences will provide valuable insight to build on.
  • Do you know who among your team will identify as being in a high-risk category? This may surprise you, and it’s not as clear as a simple age threshold. These at-risk employees should be allowed to continue working remotely as long as they feel comfortable and assuming their role allows, though they are not required to do so. This nuance is important, and I can’t recommend enough getting the counsel of a trusted labor attorney to back-check all your policies.
  • Further, how is your team commuting to work? If you have a large population commuting on the MBTA or another transit system, I have bad news for you. Related to this, how will the metro Boston-area commute shift as those who can drive to work now begin driving every day? Commuting patterns are a large unknown.
  • Finally, who is experiencing anxiety and may need extra time in the transition back to the workplace? If possible, knowing who among your team may struggle to come back to the office will help you head off staffing and HR issues when the time comes.

Next, generate your plan.

  • Consider staggering start times and shifts. If you do, how will you stagger teams in the office to best serve clients?
  • If you have folks who perform essential duties without a backup, consider letting them continue to work remotely -- rather than risking exposure -- until we all know more.
  • If you (like the architects and designers at Dyer Brown) spend much of your time at client locations and job sites, does your team know what protocols will be implemented to protect them and their colleagues? Do they know what it means to comply?
  • Set clear parameters and policies about the behavior you are seeking, such as social distancing, handwashing, and no shared food, please. Use multiple avenues to communicate and reinforce these: a handbook addendum, perhaps, and a video office meeting may help in addition to the usual emails and PDF attachments.
  • Your physical workspaces should support this behavior outlined above (as my colleagues Ashley Dunn & Karen Bala discussed here). The design of your space can support and encourage behavior but it will not change behavior in and of itself. You will need the leadership, policies and tools to back it up.
  • Consider how your organizational culture will help. Leaders should ask questions of themselves and their organization about not only what their approach might be, but also how that approach is reinforced and supported by culture they have.
  • Mandate minimum good practices as given in the CDC guidelines for infection control and support those in your physical workplace, including handwashing, minimizing physical contact, and staying home when sick or symptomatic.
  • Practice patience: Wait, go slow, and approach any changes with flexibility. Allow mental space for employees to process this transition and approach it from their own perspectives.

Then, manage the change and reinforce.

  • Common wisdom of change management holds that for a change to be successful there must be committed and visible senior level sponsorship of the change. Be sure that the key leaders are identified and that they are ready to be front and center.
  • Map out your communication plan – there is a great deal ahead of us and determining the best way for your team to hear and process these changes will be key. Take the time to map out the content, the timeline and the delivery platform of all your messaging. And be prepared to lather, rinse repeat. People need to hear messages multiple times before they take hold and that particularly goes for a time when your team is stressed, distracted and overall worried about an uncertain future.
  • Last, acknowledge what you don’t know. Imagine the way the world has changed over the last six weeks, and then try to extrapolate that experience into the next year or 18 months. Consider that a viable vaccine could be available at the end of that stretch -- an accepted projection and a critical variable. And most of all, stay nimble! Keep seeking to improve your knowledge base and allow your approach to flex and change based on new information and the latest authoritative guidelines from state, federal and global agencies.

88 Black Falcon, reimagined by Dyer Brown. Photo by Darrin Hunter

Your job as a leader is to cut through the noise for your team, and doing so will generate trust. When employees see that you’ve gone through a thorough and transparent process with both the team and your clients in mind – then they will be truly ready to show up.

Expert and author -- Rachel Woodhouse, NCIDQ LEED AP, Principal and Director of Operations with Dyer Brown, Boston -- is available as a source to the media.