By: Ber Leary on March 3rd, 2021

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5 Questions to Ask Employees Before Returning to the Office

Risk Management | Business Management & Strategy | COVID-19

Remote working has been a massive success in the past year. But now that the vaccine is rolling out, employers are looking at ways to ditch Zoom calls and return to the office. There’s just one problem: not everyone wants to go back. And it’s causing tension at some companies.

Free report — "Workplace 2022: The Year Ahead in HR"

This plot twist was entirely predictable if you had followed recent trends in total rewards packages. Even before the pandemic, remote working was a highly desirable perk for many employees. Telecommuting offers tangible benefits, such as savings on travel costs, plus it’s much easier to manage the work-life balance from home.

Which is not to say that everyone wants to be fully remote. It’s a divisive issue, with people having a variety of preferences. A survey by Slack found that 72% of workers would actually prefer a hybrid schedule, with a mix of on-site and at-home days.

Most leaders agree with this too. PwC’s research found that leaders also like the idea of a hybrid schedule, but they disagree on the appropriate split. Workers want to spend three days at home each week, while 68% of managers say that a strong company culture requires a minimum of three on-site days.


How to discuss a return to the office with your team

An employer’s pandemic response will have had a massive impact on employee relations. Workers who feel that their wellbeing was prioritized are generally happier, more engaged, and more likely to stay long-term. Those who feel mistreated say that they’re more likely to leave their job in the next twelve months.

Your handling of the return to the office will be just as important. To maintain employee engagement, the return to work process must be compassionate and collaborative. And that means having an honest conversation with each employee. Here are some questions to ask.

1) Do you feel it’s safe to return to the office?

Nobody wants to return to the office unless they feel safe. However, many employees may feel pressured to return if asked to do so. You can avoid this dilemma by asking people to share their concerns.

If someone does feel unsafe, you may be able to address these concerns head-on by asking further questions, like:

  • What risk worries you most?
  • Are you in a high-risk category for Covid?
  • How can we make you feel more secure?
  • If you’re not ready to return to the office, what alternatives would suit you?

In some cases, you might be able to assuage their fears by talking through your safety protocols. If you agree with the employee that they might be at risk, you can consider alternatives such as ongoing remote work.

2. What is your remote working preference?

Not everyone has had the same remote working experience. For some people, it’s been a dream come true. But, for others, it’s been a nightmare of distractions and IT issues.

Rather than impose a one-size-fits-all schedule, you might try working around each person’s preferences. This could mean that some people end up full-time remote, while others are always in the office.

Of course, you’ll need to be clear about your requirements for on-site participation. In particular, you’ll need to define what you need in terms of:

  • Ensuring enough people are on-site to handle essential activities, such as dealing with customers
  • Having employees present for essential in-person meetings
  • Giving everyone enough time in the office to promote communication and strengthen the culture

Once you’re clear about your minimum requirements, you’ll know how flexible you can be with each person.

3. Do you intend to get vaccinated?

Research by PwC found that only 54% would provide proof that they have received a vaccination. It’s an issue for employers, as you’ll need to make plans for people who can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons or those who choose not to.

It’s good to start by having a conversation with each employee to see how they feel about vaccination. You may encounter some vaccine hesitancy issues, which you can overcome by offering support and information. For workers who can’t receive the vaccine, you’ll need to find an accommodation that protects them and their co-workers.

4. How can we help you return to the office?

The switch to remote working was sudden and shocking. Employees did terrific work to keep productivity going during such a wild time, but employers can’t put them through that stress again. A return to the office must be calm, coordinated, and stress-free.

Before people start to return, ask them what support they need. You may find that people have a list of requirements, like:

  • Assistance with transport or childcare
  • Help with organizing a home office for a hybrid schedule
  • Clarity on office anti-Covid procedures
  • Refresher training on certain processes, like dealing with in-person customers
  • Access to Employee Assistance Programs

For many people, the toughest part will be reacclimatizing to the office after a year at home. In normal circumstances, you could organize an informal mixer and let everyone get reacquainted. Unfortunately, Covid will still be an issue for the foreseeable future, so you may need to organize smaller, socially distant gatherings.

You can also stagger the return to work, allowing people to return for a day at first, then two, and so on.

5. What will you do if you struggle in the New Normal?

The next few months will be a transitional period for all of us. Many workers will have their first experience of hybrid working, which is not the same as being fully remote. It will take time and patience, plus a high level of managerial support.

Before organizing a large-scale return to the office, make sure that everyone knows that they have your support. You can follow this up over the rest of the year with pulse surveys, feedback sessions, and group discussions about the experience of moving past the pandemic.

Download the Workplace 2022 report for insight into HR trends