The COVID-19 pandemic has presented new and incredible challenges for millions of workers around the globe. In the past few months, the workforce quickly and strategically navigated the sudden shift to remote working. As states remove stay-at-home orders and educators plan for what’s to come in the fall, many remote workers will have to return to in-person service to their employers and adapt to a new normal.
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, we’ve outlined some considerations, tools, and best practices to help guide organizational leaders facing these unprecedented challenges:
1. Why Is Reboarding so Important?
Reboarding is the gradual transition of bringing an employee back to work. Typically, reboarding refers to bringing employees back who haven’t been working because of illness, injury, or some other personal reason, but currently reboarding focuses more on bringing remote workers back to the office. In today’s pandemic environment, many organizations have to reboard a large portion, if not all, of their employees because of COVID-19. The Gallup Organization has found that a 100 percent remote work environment leads to lower employee engagement. Reboarding allows management to re-energize employees and make it easy for them to show passion about working for the organization.
Although remote working and telecommuting have been increasing in the last decade, these options are far less common for those working in the education sector, suggesting the recent forced change has placed ample stress on educational organizations. One immediate issue is damage to the highly collaborative nature of many non-teaching roles. Research shows that remote work hinders collaboration, especially when organizations don’t have high-end technology and similar work styles. Reboarding not only helps reignite employees but also allows management to promote collaboration at a time when the education is undergoing rapid changes due to a global pandemic.
2. Implement a Return-to-Work Organizational Plan
Organizations must create an effective and holistic Return-to-Work program rooted in trust and communication, allowing managers to take positive steps to keep employees productive, safe, and valued in the workplace. Even the best plans will fail if employees do not buy into the plan. A Return-to-Work plan must include more than hygiene and cleaning procedures. It should consider:
- Psychological impact. Recognize that all employees have experienced this crisis, but not in the same way. Some have adjusted to working remotely, so they may require a shift in mindset to return.
- Family impact. Recognize that although some employees are eager to return to the office, they now have caregiving responsibilities to children or other family members that make it difficult or impossible for an immediate return. This fall will especially impact those with school-age children, who still do not know if learning will take place in-person or at home.
- Workplace dynamics. Recognize that employees will need time to adapt to changes in the post-pandemic work environment. Social distancing guidelines likely have forced changes in the physical layout of their workspace and possibly changes in schedule.
3. Prepare for a Return by Supporting Employees Now
Each employee had a different experience and reaction to the pandemic and remote work, creating unique stressors. Emphasize concern for employee well-being by offering compassion, honesty, openness, and empathy for their situations.
Consistently communicate and actively listen to your employees so they feel heard, which builds emotional support within and across departments at your organization. It’s likely a fair amount of your employees will not immediately return to the office for many reasons. While you want to prepare for your employees’ return, forcing them to return can disrupt the supportive environment you wish to create and harm the relationship between management and staff. Communicating compassion means showing empathy with the idea that some are fearful of returning to the office. In fact, half of the working adults in the United States report they are afraid of returning to work and contracting COVID-19.
Support the Mental Health of Your Employees
Quarantining and self-isolation during the pandemic may have impacted some of your employees’ mental health. Human resources departments across educational organizations need to remain aware of potential effects and be ready to offer resources, especially to those exposed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that those who end home isolation can experience the following emotional reactions:
- Mixed emotions, including relief
- Anxiety about personal health and the health of loved ones
- Stress from having COVID-19 and accompanying monitoring
- Sadness, frustration, and anger from loved ones avoiding them after infection
- Guilt as a result of the inability to perform regular work or parental duties
You can support employees by training managers about these effects and asking them to monitor employees and look for those struggling. Other ways to support your employees’ mental health after COVID-19 include: sharing mental health resources via a company-wide email, creating an emotional support group for employees to attend, and incorporating mental health leave into paid time off policies.
Take an Individualized Approach
After working remotely for a few months, employees’ daily routines suffered significant disruptions. Supervisors play a role in helping staff find new approaches to structure their day. Depending on an individual’s remote work habits, work environment, and routine, this can look different for each employee. Managers will lead the most effective strategies for welcoming employees back to the office and supporting their adaption to changes, culturally and otherwise.
4. Reboard Employees Effectively
It’s crucial to create a Return-to-Work plan, implement that plan, and support employees, but your efforts fail if you do not effectively reboard your employees. Some things you can do to ensure efficiency and productivity as returning employees adapt to a new normal include:
You need to set clear expectations from the outset and follow through on promises to foster trust with employees returning to work. Consider developing a guide or re-orientation process to help returning staff reacclimate to the office from working remotely. As you communicate your plan for a structured return to the office, share what the transition will look like and listen to any concerns with compassion. Clear communication and meaningful conversations about the Return-to-Work plan helps increase and maintain employee morale.
Remind Them of Their Why
Your employees have chosen to work in the education sector to affect meaningful change for students. They have specifically chosen your organization because your mission aligns with their underlying motivation and career goals. Re-introduce your organization’s mission to remind your employees why they started working with you in the first place.
The hustle and bustle of returning to the office, coupled with complying with government recommendations and getting back to the business that matters, can be overwhelming. This potentially can lead to employees feeling alienated and insecure. Don’t leave your employees in the dark. Check-in early and often.
Rebuild a Social Environment
Temporary, but extended, remote work damaged and sometimes destroyed workplace culture and healthy social interaction. Some employees feel like their meeting coworkers for the first time, and others have missed their peers. The forced remote work environment caused employees to interact in different ways, often with people sharing more about their personal lives than before. The shared experience can bring staff together. Inspire collaboration and help your employees develop strong interpersonal relationships and rekindle lost working relationships. You can go beyond the team environment present for many who work in the education sector and promote bonding within and across departments by setting up interest groups, hosting happy hours, and matching employees with buddies in other departments with similar interests.
Transitioning back to in-person work creates questions for many employees, especially as it relates to new policies and procedures. Make it easier for your employees to adapt to changes by centralizing information. Employees can find answers to their questions when vital information is easily accessible.
Ensure Digital Health
Remote work for every industry often results in additional unauthorized activities on employees’ electronic devices. If your employees used company-issued devices while working remotely, your IT team needs to remove any software, video games, and other downloads. Laptops and tablets need to be free of malware once employees return to the office and connect directly to your organization’s digital network.
5. Include Health and Safety Procedures and Policies
Transitioning your employees back to in-person work requires you to identify and comply with federal, state, and local orders with regard to COVID-19. Not only do you need to comply, but you also must include health and safety procedures and policies that show your employees that you prioritize their health and well-being. Some key procedures you will need to implement to keep your employees healthy and safe when they return to work include:
Screen for Admittance
Organizations are implementing daily, mandatory screening protocols for all employees before entering the office to mitigate the chance of bringing COVID-19 into the office. Body temperature screenings are the most common protocol, but some organizations ask a few questions about potential exposure and symptoms. It’s also crucial to encourage employees to self-monitor for symptoms and stay home when they are sick.
Prioritize Social Distancing
Social distancing is a must to keep employees safe from contracting COVID-19 at the office. Your organization needs to develop policies that maximize space among employees and visitors in their physical workspaces, ideally striving for the recommended six feet of distance. You can maintain the existing layout of office furniture, but assign seating to accommodate safe physical distancing. Other strategies you can use to prioritize social distancing include:
- Allow employees with non-collaborative roles to remain at home for a while longer
- Limit travel
- Limit meetings, conferences, events, and other social gatherings
- Stagger work schedules
- Restrict visitors who are not employees
- Stagger break times
- Install shields or partitions in shared workspaces
- Close off common spaces such as break rooms
Implement Policies To Maintain Hygiene and Cleanliness
With cleanliness at the top of the mind for employees returning to work, organizations need to plan, communicate, and enforce cleaning regimens followed by support services and employees. Similarly, managers and human resources personnel must lead by example. Support staff need ample time for regular cleaning and disinfecting. Examples of policies you can implement to maintain hygiene and cleanliness in the office include:
- Promote proper coughing and sneezing etiquette, encouraging employees to use their elbow or a tissue
- Implement handwashing practices, especially when entering the office
- Keep an abundant supply of hand sanitizer around the office for when employees cannot wash their hands
- Encourage employees to stay home when they feel ill or experience COVID-19 symptoms
Maintaining hygiene and cleanliness requires supplies for your employees to comply with protocols. You can keep disinfectant or wipes readily available so that employees can wipe down door handles, elevator buttons, and other everyday items after use. Order relevant supplies as soon as you intend on having employees return to work. Items you will need include:
- Hand soap and hand sanitizer
- Tissues and paper towels
- Disinfectant sprays or wipes
- Face masks
Plan Phases for Returning to Work
Prioritizing employees’ health and safety as they transition back to in-person work includes implementing a phased approach. Phases for reentry to an office-based workplace environment may be based on your organizational need and the continued health of employees. A gradual return reduces the burden on your organization and those responsible for managing and performing enhanced cleaning and disinfection duties. Choices about who comes back and when will vary among educational organizations. You might choose to bring back departments in order of need. For example, those working on curriculum development or policies need to spend time collaborating, but your organization’s accounting or finance professionals can perform their tasks from home for a little while longer. Another approach to organizing phases includes polling your employees and finding out who wants to volunteer to return to the office during the first phase.
Patience with Reboarding Results in Success
Management teams bear primary responsibility for navigating their organizations through the disruption caused by COVID-19 by choosing how and when to begin the complex task or returning to the workplace as the government lifts restrictions. The initial transition of returning to in-person work in the education sector may be overwhelming. With practice and patience, you can find success and satisfaction on ‘the inside,’ too.
WorkMonger understands the challenge schools and educational organizations face as they bring non-teaching employees back to the office, and we are here to help. Contact us today to learn more about how we can support your reboarding at your organization.