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What’s the Right Way to Return to the Workplace?


During the COVID-19 crisis, it’s tempting to focus on immediate challenges and sort everything else out later. However, we’re also living during a historic global transformative event with fallout that will affect many aspects of business and everyday life in unpredictable ways for years to come.

Organizations can try to muddle through and survive today’s immediate challenges. However, if companies, schools, and other groups don’t identify their long-term goals and how to achieve them, they risk getting trapped in a deadly cycle of constant crisis and, eventually, obsolescence or worse.

Here are six tips we’re giving our clients to get their returns to the workplace right.

Identify your ultimate goal.

Saul B. Helman, M.D.

Returning to the workplace isn’t a long-term goal. Adapting or transforming your organization to thrive, not just survive, under radically different conditions is. That means answering tough questions about how to reinvent your business and re-engage with customers for success in a new environment.

Returning to the classroom, for example, isn’t an end-goal. Providing a quality education, attracting and retaining good teachers, increasing enrollment, and keeping everyone safe are the real goals. COVID-19 is the crisis today, but epidemiologists agree that new epidemics and pandemics are inevitable and likely to surface more frequently.

Win every referendum.

Employees, candidates, customers, prospects, investors, and the media vote on your management every day. In normal times, it may be easier to bounce back from an occasional thumbs down. That’s no longer the case.

You may not know how much support you’ve lost among employees, especially those who can’t work from home, until the crisis eases and they vote with their feet. If you fail to earn the trust and confidence of stakeholders, you won’t get their full support for measures to blunt contagion risk and they’ll abandon you for competitors who can. Now is a historic opportunity to foment stronger ties with all stakeholders.

Walmart, Target, Home Depot, and certain other big-box stores pivoted to leverage their extensive network of brick-and-mortar stores for COVID-safe e-commerce purchase pickups, which hadn’t been a major revenue driver before the pandemic. They all posted huge sales jumps in the latest quarter.

Avoid echo chambers.

David Berger

You’ll need to conduct a comprehensive risk review and create a “to-do” list, but you also should get a gut check from experts and other stakeholders who aren’t on your management team because you undoubtedly will have missed something.

We’ve seen well-run organizations thoughtfully restructure office floor space to create a socially-distanced workplace and still overlook, for example, airflow and HVAC systems. The risk of transmitting the virus via aerosols can increase without return air ventilation, especially in any room without the mechanism for air exchange. A similar concern exists for high-flow power flushing toilets, hand dryers, and air scent diffusers in employee bathrooms.

Be flexible.

If you proactively adjust vacation, personal leave, healthcare, work-from-home, and other HR policies, procedures, and benefits to the reality of life during this pandemic, your employees will be flexible too. They’ll also tell job candidates. The same goes for your customers.

Industrial behemoth Siemens, which already knew from surveys that its employees wanted greater flexibility, learned from the pandemic that “working independently of a fixed location offers many advantages and is possible on a much wider scale than originally thought.” Last month the company announced that more than 100,000 employees could work from home two or three days a week on a permanent basis.

Train, practice, review, repeat.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, as the old joke goes.

When you launch a new product, you train, practice, review, and repeat new steps to iron out unanticipated kinks and keep everyone moving in the same direction. The same applies to planning for a return to the workplace.

Just as you have fire drills, we suggest practicing your organization’s response to, for example, news that one of your employees believes she has COVID-19.

Will you confirm the infection? How? What if it takes too long to get test results? Who will contact trace? How and when will you share this information with other employees, clients, neighboring businesses and public health officials? Should other employees be tested or quarantined? What if the media calls?

Don’t throw away your shot.

As with Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr during the American Revolution, all of your competitors and peers are facing the same crisis you are. The pandemic presents a rare opportunity for a broad range of organizations to pivot to new strategies.

Consider the cruise line industry, which struggled to manage infectious disease outbreaks long before COVID-19. Last month Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings created the “Healthy Sail Panel” to address the pandemic. If done properly, the industry could demonstrate and reinforce its leadership by providing one of the world’s safest leisure environments.

The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the biggest challenges ever faced by most organizations. It’s also one of the greatest opportunities to make meaningful long-term change.

As Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman once said, “only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change.”

Dr. Helman and Mr. Berger are the practice leader and director, respectively,  of the life sciences group at global consulting firm Guidehouse.

contributor, Guidehouse


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