Originally Posted by Forbes – via forbes.com – December 16, 2020

One of my best friends recently went back to working in the office for the first time since March. The day before she went in, we had a long chat. Mostly, she was feeling, as I expected, ambivalent. As much as she missed the culture around the office, there was also something really nice about working from home.

What was less expected, however, was how she described the new office protocol. Or should I say the lack thereof. There seemed to be a distinct absence of clarity given to staff around office safety practices, or how, if at all, they were planning for different possible eventualities.

Our conversation particularly resonated with me because it reminded me of some trends I’ve been seeing, and hearing from clients, about how different workplaces are handling the return to in-person work.

Now, obviously, “How To Re-Open An Office In The Midst Of A Global Pandemic” was not on the syllabus of anyone’s management course. I know these are uncharted waters compared to normal office practices, but I’ve been hearing about a lot of major blunders that companies are making when reopening.

So, managers, I’m speaking to you now.

Here are some major don’ts when it comes to inviting staff back into the office. Please avoid these blunders, for all of our safety, health, productivity, and …sanity.

1. No coherent or comprehensive policy or practices for Covid-19 safety

You would think this one would go without saying, but … you’d be surprised.

We are certainly all cheered up at the news of several functional vaccines, but it seems likely that these will only slightly accelerate the pace at which we return to “normal.” It’s expected that many in-person business activities will not be able to resume in full before at least the second quarter of 2021.

Add this to the recent increase in cases, and it would seem that for the foreseeable future, companies who are reopening offices will have to have stringent and comprehensive plans and protocols.

U.S. offices have the added challenge of varied state-to-state response to Covid-19, and sometimes seemingly inconsistent and contradictory policy and messaging from politicians and public health officials.

All this leaves a heavy burden on those planning for offices reopening to set a precedent and create strong protocols for keeping staff safe and comfortable. This is why the biggest blunder you can make in bringing your staff back is not taking time to carefully consider best practices and safety measures.  It is also vital to plan for any unfortunate possibility such as Covid-19 cases within the office. Nothing will erode your employees’ trust in you quite like an outbreak in your office.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC( has provided guidelines for offices in reopening which includes plans for risk assessment, testing, preventative measure, and contact tracing. Their guidelines and protocols are extensive, and should be carefully studied by anyone who is managing the reopening of an office. A few specific guidelines from CDC include:

  • Have up-to-date sick leave and supportive policies.  Make sure that employees are able to take advantage of sick time and that these policies are in step with public health guidelines. Implement policies to protect and support employees at a higher risk or with preexisting health conditions.
  • Educate employees about safety practices and policies. Provide advice and guidelines for staff so that they can maintain the safest possible practices both at home and in the office.  Communicate early and often.
  • Deal proactively with staff members who are potential sick or exposed to Covid-19.  Ensure that sick employees stay home.  Do routine health checks such as symptoms or temperature checks.  Follow through contact tracing, should an employee test positive.
  • Consider improvements and changes that would create a safer office environment. Improved ventilation, availability of sanitizers and touch-free devices, routine cleaning and disinfecting will all contribute to a safer and healthier office.
  • Look for all ways to mitigate risk. Limit in-person meetings and cancel or postpone larger gatherings when possible. Discourage travel.

These should be just a starting point, and it is worth it for managers to consider all the risks involved. Ask the difficult question of whether or not the level of risk is low enough to safely reopen. Beyond this, consider whether it could be viable to continue work-from-home practices, should the risk in a certain office environment be greater.

As important as putting in place these protocols is communicating them fully and comprehensively to staff. Not only is this vital to creating a sense of safety and comfort for employees who may feel they are taking on greater risk by returning to the office, but it is also crucial so that employees are on the same page and maintaining the same safety practices.

The importance of good communication and transparency around Covid-19 practice is evidenced in the data. Companies that increased transparency during the pandemic saw a 72% rise in employee satisfaction, and a 37% drop in employee’s fear of Covid-19 in the workplace.

From all we’ve learned about Covid-19, we know that we are only strong as the weakest link in the chain of health and safety.

2. Lack of flexibility

Managers, it may come as a surprise, but most members of your staff probably weren’t counting down the days until they could return to the office. No, the coffee isn’t that good.

The biggest blunder I’m hearing a lot about is a failure to recognize that staff members may not want to or be ready to return to the office full time without the flexibility to continue to work from home.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic caused shutdowns across the globe, remote work was on the rise. From 2010 to 2020, there was a 400% increase in employees working from home at least once a week. Furthermore, remote work is expected to increase by 77% from 2019 to 2022.

Remote freelance work surged during the pandemic as many were laid off from full time positions, or opted for the flexibility and safety of working from home.  It’s estimated that 2 million Americans started freelance since September 2019, and the percent of Americans doing freelance work has to risen 36% of the workforce, up 8% from 2019 numbers.

Data supports the fact that remote work options are better for staff and for overall office productivity. In fact, 77% of workers report higher productivity from working from home. Of work-from-home staff, 53% take less time off, and 23% report working longer hours. Perhaps most compelling: 83% of workers report that being able to work from home would contribute to job satisfaction.

As more offices are reopening, I’m often hearing that the expectation is that workers who previously worked full time on-site are being expected to come back into the office for the full work week.

Research estimates that 37% of jobs can easily be done remotely. In 2020, as we’ve tested the upper limits of what work can be done from home, and figured out innovative ways to push productivity from our home offices. There will always be aspects of work that are easier to accomplish in person, but that doesn’t mean that a flexible model cannot be put in place.

Being flexible about schedule and allowing your staff to explore new models for hybrid work from home and in person work is a safer bet. A hybrid work-from-home and office model has many benefits, allowing for safe practices such as limiting numbers who are together in-person and creating “pods” or smaller team cohorts. It is also inclusive of individuals whose health may be more vulnerable or who are less comfortable with working in person.

Many expect a hybrid model to become the new standard. A recent survey of executives indicates that 38% expect employees will work two or more days away from the office, even after the pandemic.

Another thing to consider is that everyone has a different comfort level when it comes to health, safety and risk. Some of us are okay with some risk, others prefer to take extra precautions. In our personal lives, we’ve all had to negotiate the socially awkward conversations about personal health practices, or turn down invites because we weren’t sure we felt comfortable with the safety of a certain situation.

Now, imagine if it wasn’t an outdoor Halloween party, but your job. Until there is some guarantee of safety, companies should be as flexible as possible in allowing people to make the choice about when they are comfortable returning to the office. This is important when it comes to company culture, not just the letter of the law. Make sure that your attitude and approach to reopening is inclusive and understanding.

3. Not showing gratitude and support to staff

The final major blunder that I’m hearing about over and over again is the lack of understanding, gratitude and support that many workers are feeling as they transition from work-from-home back to the office, or as they continue to work diligently from home.

While work-from-home has offered some benefits, for many of us it has been a tremendous challenge. Add to this the general stress and anxiety that we have all been internalizing throughout this challenging year of repeated crises. Many who were used to managing one challenging job suddenly find themselves juggling several: homeschool teacher, babysitter while relatives are doing essential work, or caregiver for a sick family member.

Parents have an especially hard time, with 54% of working-from-home parents stating it’s difficult to balance work and home life. Furthermore, 60% stated that they found that managing remote learning to be especially challenging.

The pandemic has also put tremendous strain on many relationships.  Surveys indicate that divorce rates are up 34%, and this number is even higher among newlyweds, especially those married for less than 5 months, among whom the divorce rate has doubled.

And then there’s mental health… A survey on employee mental health during Covid-19 found that overall mental health dropped by 33% with 2 out of 3 employees reporting that they feel more stressed out than they did pre-Covid.

Too many managers seem to be treating this as business as usual. Not only does it show a lack of understanding to treat employees as if they should be just as productive without regard to the current circumstances, it’s also poor management. Even before the pandemic, 43% of employees indicated that they wish they received more support from management and HR.

Some companies are taking measures to help staff, including 32% of employers who planned to increase mental health services for staff. Still, 4 out of 10 employees stated that their employer was not providing them any additional resources to combat the challenges of Covid-19.

Here are some ways you can offer enhanced resources for mental health to your staff:

  • Communication:  It starts with communicating your resources for mental health to your staff, and opening up space for staff to express their needs and contribute to discussions about office practices and resources.
  • Enhanced health insurance benefit:  Ensure that your company health insurance policy offers comprehensive behavioral/mental health coverage.  Consider ways to subsidize this coverage.
  • Mental health screening tools:  Offer staff mental health self-assessment and screening tools in a way that is routine, consistent, and confidential.
  • Sponsor virtual seminars, events, and retreats: Sponsor staff coaching and seminars on stress management, recognizing anxiety and depression, and mindfulness.  Create virtual events to supplement the reduced social engagement from remote work and Covid-related shutdowns.

Allocating resources will go a long way, however it is also important to recognize the need for broader support and understanding in company culture, especially within competitive industries.

Even for those who have not experienced acute stress and mental health effects throughout 2020, working from home separates employees from many of the benefits that they may feel make their job enjoyable and worthwhile.

Without the perks of the office, and the nourishing social engagement that comes from working closely with others, many employees may be feeling less committed to their job. Staff members may feel that management has failed to compensate for the many months without the normal office perks and benefits. This may contribute to employee burnout and dissatisfaction and may even push some to seek other opportunities.

An employee engagement survey found that 69% of workers admitted that they would work harder if they felt more appreciated. Considering all the difficulties of 2020, this statistic should be taken closely to heart in considering how to show your staff that they are valued.

The slow and sometimes stop-and-start movement toward the new “normal” will continue to take its time. So if you are a manager and considering bringing staff back into the office, you would do well to take your time as well. Ask yourself the tough questions. Is it safe? Is it necessary?  How can I make staff feel secure and valued? In the answers to these questions lies a roadmap to safely finding your way to a happy and secure workplace.