As business offices, factories, and other buildings and facilities begin to reopen in Asia, the threat of COVID-19 remains. Workplaces can’t yet return to their earlier selves — and may never do so. So how can employers best manage the return-to-workplace transition?
“Health and safety remain the top priority,” says Sumit Malhotra, Director, Gartner. “Give decision-making autonomy to local HR teams. They can align their reopening decision to fit the local context, address employee concerns and make it clear that no one will be forced to return if they don’t want to.”
Get comfortable with the uncomfortable
Early experience from Asia suggests transparency, flexibility and iteration are key in return-to-workplace plans — especially because of the possibility of multiple rounds of re-entry and re-exit over a protracted period, depending on coronavirus infection rates. And, given all the disruption, “Keep things as simple as possible,” says an HR leader at an automobile company in China.
Gartner’s review of various types of companies in Asia surfaced seven key areas that HR leaders see as foundational for a successful return-to-workplace plan.
Read more: Return-to-Workplace Guide for HR Leaders
No. 1: Focus on the door-to-door health and safety of employees
Health and safety are paramount. This means in-facility safeguards are a given, including masks, hand sanitizer, employee temperature screenings and social distancing, and regular and aggressive cleaning schedules for buildings and facilities. But employees could equally be at risk when they commute, eat lunch or meet clients, so anticipate and respond proactively to such risks.
- Ensure social distancing in offices. Reduce “hot desking,” restrict the number of people allowed in meeting rooms and shared areas like kitchens and cafeterias, and reevaluate floor plans to accommodate social distancing. Use tactics such as staggered start times and alternate-day schedules to reduce congestion, and put markers on floors and desks to remind and ensure physical distancing.
- Distance assembly-line workers. Manufacturers are analyzing work sequences to find ways to distance assembly-line workers, allocating more time between shifts and reducing expectations for production because it takes longer for people to move around at a safe distance.
- Provide transportation alternatives. One large beverage company provides shuttle buses to and from plants so employees can avoid public transport. Employees reserve their seat via a chat group to limit the number of riders. They wear masks to board and sit on alternate seats.
- Conduct health and safety checks at entry. Most companies are measuring the body temperature of employees when they arrive and asking for regular health declarations. One manufacturing company scans a QR code for each employee, which generates a health status report. Once that report clears the employee, they are issued a day pass to enter.
No. 2: Leverage employee data to plan the reopening of facilities
Organizations in Asia are collecting and monitoring a variety of new employee data to inform their return-to-workplace plans. The do’s and don’ts of using employee data remain unchanged: Be candid and transparent in communicating with employees the details of what data is being collected — and why.
Articulate the benefits for the individual employee, not just the organization, and provide multiple and frequent opportunities for employees to provide or decline their consent. Lean on cross-functional relationships, especially with legal and IT, to create secure data collection platforms and make sure the data collected is permissible by law.
- Use your data to inform your plans on quarantines and employee support. A wide range of data is available to pull from, including employee health metrics; location and travel history; commute options; family composition, such as the presence of senior citizens and school-going children; and recent interactions with COVID-19 patients.
- Measure and monitor employee engagement levels, mindset and level of comfort regarding their return to the workplace — and continue to monitor once employees have returned.
No. 3: Stagger the workforce’s return
Most organizations that have begun returning employees to the workplace have done so in phases. HR and business leaders decide who returns based on a range of factors, from government guidance and the nature of work to employee preferences.
- Lean on workforce analysis from your HR pandemic plans, which should have formally segmented employees according to their roles, activities, skill sets — and their ability to work remotely. Use those insights to sequence the phases of return.
- Make employees comfortable. A leading professional services firm reintroduced its leadership team first to signal to other employees that they believed it was safe to return. At one international auto company in China, HR began its planning by asking those employees who were willing to return and had no health risks. Such checks help returning employees feel more confident that the workplace is safe.
No. 4: Maintain frequent two-way communication
Leverage all regular top-down communication channels — town halls, emails, intranets, etc., — to communicate proactively and frequently with employees about return-to-workplace plans and the reasoning behind them. But also listen to employees. Create opportunities for manager-employee one-on-ones and other channels to allow employees to express concerns freely.
- Solicit employee feedback. One company surveyed employees a month after they began returning to the workplace to ask how they felt about the level of safety, the return experience, and the organization’s success in mitigating risks and protecting employees. It also encouraged employees to share improvement ideas.
- Be open to various communication channels. Leverage informal communication channels popular among employees to make it easy for them to ask questions and raise concerns regarding return and safety. Most organizations in China use platforms such as WeChat to keep their employees updated on a real-time basis.
No. 5: Absorb lockdown successes into your best practices
COVID-19 lockdowns have forced workplaces and workforces to adapt and evolve. But the crisis response has surfaced many highly productive behaviors and workarounds that can be absorbed into everyday best practices once employees return to more traditional working environments.
“We are thinking about how we can continue to adopt the practices that we adopted when we had no choice,” says the regional CHRO of one professional services firm.
- Update best practices. Employees have proven they can be effective remotely, so capture processes and behaviors that have contributed to their productivity and formalize them into best practices for different teams and workstreams. Include best practices for managing remote employees.
- Take stock of productivity benefits. Many virtual tools were suddenly deployed during the crisis, and many could be used more routinely even during “normal” business conditions. Look to capture productivity and cost benefits for the long term.
- Increase the use of proven virtual tools. One multinational in Asia, after reviewing lessons learned, has sped up its digital learning initiatives. Another is increasing its use of virtual learning and interviews.
No. 6: Give autonomy to local HR teams
The severity and impact stage of COVID-19 varies widely within and between countries — as do government guidelines and mandates. Businesses are also in different stages of recovery so, for example, a global multinational may be opening operations in China while shutdowns continue in the U.S. HR leaders and response teams on the ground can be more responsive than a centralized team to the needs of employees, business leaders, and authorities.
- Grant decision-making autonomy to local HR teams. Many regional and business-unit HR leaders in Asia say this type of authority has helped them throughout the crisis to:
- Keep employees safer because local HR teams can respond to local outbreak conditions.
- Respond more swiftly to the specific needs of local employees and build employee trust in managers (and vice versa).
- Make appropriate redeployment, hiring and other decisions to respond to demands from regional/local business leaders.
No. 7: Plan for a protracted period of disruption
In the words of one HR leader in Asia: “Get comfortable with the uncomfortable.” In other words, be prepared to react and respond repeatedly as the situation continues to develop.
HR leaders at numerous organizations in Hong Kong and Singapore say they have reopened their facilities only to close again amid spikes in coronavirus infection rates. Your return-to-workplace plans must be able to flex for multiple lockdown cycles for the foreseeable future — or until there is a widely available cure or vaccine for COVID-19.
- Provide and update the technology that employees need to be productive, including hardware (laptops), software, data connections and security. Consider whether to fast-track functional or organizational technology solutions.
- Actively fortify remote-work policies. Few organizations were prepared for the urgent and often-mandated move to large-scale remote work. Now is the time to bolster policies and set expectations about what employees should be accomplishing, how absence will be logged, expectations for behavior and ethics, and so on.
- Evaluate long-term plans for remote work. Employees are likely to want the additional flexibility of working from home after this crisis passes. Start now to craft strategic plans for new workforce and workplace structures and needs — from technology and office space to development programs.