Early in my career, I managed an international assignment program where employees were sent abroad to work for three to five years in a foreign country. At first, I was one of those ex-pats, but I never made it back home. Instead I was asked to manage the program, which was the hardest job I ever had. But it turns out this experience led to insights that apply to some of HR’s biggest challenges as we continue our struggle against COVID-19 and begin the complicated process of returning to work.

Here’s a quick example of what I mean. Back then, my employer put a lot of effort into preparing the ex-pats to adapt and fit in their host country culturally. However, little support was provided to help people who had been working and living abroad for several years adapt to life back in their home country. Consequently, the attrition rate of those returning home was close to 90 percent within the first year – a tremendous loss of knowledge and experience.

What was the problem?  Neither the employer nor the ex-pats realized that a lot happens in three to five years. What used to be a very familiar and comfortable setting for many individuals returning from their international assignments became a strange new world in which they struggled.

Now let’s think about our current situation. COVID-19 has undoubtedly caused a lot of change in a very short period, making the ways we used to do business seem uncomfortable, unsafe, or strange to employees. Much like we needed to at my old job to help employees return to their former homes, we as HR professionals now need to ask ourselves the following – what are the obvious and not-so-obvious things we need to consider when returning employees to their former workplace, and how do we reintegrate them in the best possible manner?

Let’s start with the obvious priorities and then I’ll explore some hidden challenges I don’t think you’ll find on most return to work plans.

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The foundation of return: 3 key questions

Bringing employees back to work has many different facets that need to be considered. Luckily you don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to setting core priorities, as there are many best practices now available. For example, Seyfarth has published a Return to Business and Post Pandemic Planning Checklist that will enable you to quickly assess the vast majority of things that should be at least considered across a wide variety of topics. Here are a few core items I’d like to highlight as foundational questions your organization should be asking before we get into our hidden challenges:

1. How do we gather a team and get coordinated?

Bringing employees back to work will have to be a well-planned and executed process, as it will touch most departments and functions within the business. Consider looping HR, labor relations, IT, facilities, health and safety, office management, PR, communications, and senior management representatives into a project or steering committee around the return to work that looks at all your current business practices from multiple perspectives and advises on how best to adapt them. This group should also be used for corporate policy decisions on anything related to returning to work.

2. What happens after our employees return to work?

Do you need to consider reductions in pay or hours? How are work schedules affected, and do you need to make any changes to work duties, and how will that affect employee status? Do changes in job duties trigger an increase in pay or bonuses, incentive pay, or even benefits? The point is that a “simple” change could lead to a chain reaction of events. Take the time before making the change to follow through on its downstream effects. Otherwise, you might cause more work and problems for yourself down the road.

3. What happens if employees refuse to return?

Anticipate that some employees in potentially high-risk roles will have concerns regarding their return to work, and develop protocols for addressing those concerns, including options for accommodations, permitting election to participate in later phases of return to work, and how to respond to leave requests. Some employee reasons for concern may be: 

  • Child, dependent, or senior care obligations
  • Member of a vulnerable population or members of the household belonging to a vulnerable population
  • Restricted travel or commute options based on reduced public transportation, removal of carpool options, and similar factors

There may be many other reasons for concern as well. We know by now COVID-19 has had heavy mental health impacts on employees, so as we introduce even more change we must be sensitive to their needs and strike a balance between their safety and well-being  and the operational needs of our organizations.

The nuances of return: 3 hidden challenges now that everything has changed

There is comfort in certainty, and in this particular case, we can be confident that nothing is the way it was before the pandemic and that we should not take anything for granted. Even if you’ve gone through the most comprehensive of checklists and have crossed all the T’s and dotted all the I’s, there is still the potential for several curveballs.

The most significant variable in the entire return-to-work process is, of course, your people. Let’s highlight a few examples of where things can go astray and how to be best prepared for what is likely to come your way, even if you have a tight return to work plan. These three examples explore the underlying motivations your employees might have, so that you can take them in consideration and proactively develop responses to them so they don’t slip under the radar and cause issues further down the road after you complete your return.

1. A new relationship with the daily commute

Just because someone was ready to commute 90 minutes one way before the pandemic doesn't mean that they'll be ready to do the same when work shifts back to more onsite formats. Doing the same thing over and over for an extended period of time makes us numb. The pandemic created a long enough break to allow individuals to reconsider their options, and many are realizing all the things they can do with the extra 3 hours in their day that was previously wasted on the commute.

Seek conversations with your long-distance commuters to get a sense if this an issue they’re dealing with. Explore accommodations that you could apply across the board if needed, such as two days of remote work and three days in the office or flexible start times to avoid heavy rush hour traffic. If you support these new options properly with your communications strategy and get leadership bought in, you can turn something that might have led to fatigue or burnout into a cultural advantage for your organization.

2. Deeper connections to family life

There is no question that it can be a huge challenge to have everyone at home and get any work done while the kids are playing in the house or the dog decides to greet the delivery driver with a fierce salvo of barks. While some of your employees can't wait to get out of the house to sit in their quiet and peaceful offices again, others have rekindled their family bonds and may not look forward to the day your office officially reopens.

The impact on your employees can be substantial, and you should look at the weeks and months ahead for opportunities to help employees ease back into the office setting. Enabling your people managers with flexible decision making and supporting the needs of the individuals will be key in the post-pandemic work environment. If your people managers are hard-driving taskmasters, HR will have their hands full and flight risk might spike.

3. New expectations around remote work

Put yourself in the shoes of your employees for a moment. Many have jumped through hoops to make this whole remote work thing work. While they might be looking forward to working in the office again, they might also feel that they have earned the right to be a remote employee.

Don't be surprised if even your dedicated "hardcore" office employees get their feathers ruffled if you tell them that there is little or no flexibility for them to decide where they want to work. For many employees, it will feel as if they have earned their remote work badge, and even if they didn't particularly like it, they also won't give up on it without a fight.

Conclusion: Flexibility is the secret ingredient for any return to work plan

Thinking back over the last few months, it's easy to see that the one skill that employers and employees needed more than anything was flexibility. We had no choice but to be flexible to stay operational and productive. Some individuals displayed impressive degrees of flexibility and ingenuity, and some home office setups would have made MacGyver proud. Others used flexibility to mentally adapt and create a new view of the world at work to stay focused, given the changed circumstances, but all of it has been necessary to thrive in the new world around us.

For the weeks and months to come, employers will be challenged to create environments that address employees' varying needs during the return to work. The true test in flexibility is still ahead of us. Companies that will be able to strike a great balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the company will succeed and reap incredible rewards associated with employee engagement and commitment. Start now with defining the parameters of your flexibility so that you don't have to operate case-by-case. This method will not be scalable or maintainable in light of consistent and fair application across your workforce.

If you're looking for more advice on how to continue managing through uncertainty and moving toward a successful return to work, we've got a ton of helpful resources on our Managing Through Times of Uncertainty page.

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Published: Tuesday, August 25, 2020