Office workers in protective facemasks

How to transition successfully to a new world of work

Image credit: Dreamstime

There are no one-size-fits-all solutions to getting businesses back up and running during the ongoing pandemic, but firms can optimise their chances of flourishing by planning carefully and listening to their employees.

The last few months have been a lot to handle; it’s been a tough time for everyone, both professionally and personally. As some level of normality begins to rear its sleepy head, businesses are asking themselves, what next? How do we get people back into the office and foster an environment of safety and productivity? How do we prepare for a possible second wave? And what does the future hold?

These are vast, complex questions that have no specific answer. After all, one person’s perfect action plan is another’s nightmare, cookie-cutter solutions aren’t realistic, and there’s no such thing as magic beans. We need to take time to listen to employees and establish a plan that will protect both them and our business interests one small step at a time.

But where to begin? At this stage, it’s about evaluation. You need to evaluate your employees’ needs – they’re what will keep your business running, so they must be the priority. You have to make sure they’re safe, that they feel safe, and that they have the tools to work in this brave new world. Next, you need to evaluate your business priorities - have they shifted, or do your goals still line up?

Finally, you need to examine the digital transformation you’ve already undergone and assess the other potential changes that will need to be made in the short, medium and long term. These are also big questions, but as I’ll show you, they feed into one another, making the return to work smoother, but bespoke to your organisation.

Employee safety

There has long been a saying that if you look after your employees, your employees will look after your business. I don’t think we’ll ever see a time where that is truer than in 2020. If you’re asking your employees to risk their lives, and potentially their families’ lives, to come into your office, you need to be doing everything in your power to make them safe and make them feel secure.

Whether it’s implementing flexible working, removing hot-desking, or implementing desk-booking systems to enable contact tracing, now is the time to evaluate your current processes and adapt them to the new world order. Speak to your employees, listen to what their biggest fears are, what would make them feel safe and what you should be doing. They might not want to sit in Perspex boxes, cut off from others, so don’t waste your money on something that will be demoralising when alternatives like desk booking are available that are employee-experience-focused, a fraction of the cost, and a long-term investment.

If your employees don’t feel like the office is where they want to be, listen to them, talk to them, address concerns and bring them into the conversation. Not creating an environment where they both are safe and feel safe is risky. It could lead to staff departures and a reduction in brand authority.

Investing in the right technologies and processes for your business is what will make the initial transition smoother, but it means looking ahead.

The future of your business

While you’re speaking and listening to your employees, you can take the opportunity to evaluate your goals and align your business beliefs. Review your business goals from the start of January and ask yourself whether they’re achievable, relevant, or more important than ever.

If the goalposts have shifted, now is the time to look at how your business can change its position. Covid has taken up a lot of brainpower and energy, and absolutely every company has had to shelve important projects and commitments.

Look at sustainability, for example. This was one of the hottest topics in January. Tackling the climate crisis was on everyone’s agenda and every day saw another business promising to go carbon-neutral or achieve a carbon deficit. By March, those conversations unsurprisingly dwindled. Now we’re seeing the first face masks floating with the fishes. Everyone has invested in Perspex screens, but what will happen to these afterwards? It’s another global issue that has taken a back seat, but it’s still there and will need addressing soon. So if this, for instance, was a priority for your organisation look at how your new processes will impact that goal in a few months – when people begin to grow weary and less accepting of change.

Times of crisis are where opportunities are born. Look at what you’ve wanted to achieve in the past, and see if these are now possible. Ask yourself and others lots of questions:

  • What is the purpose of the organisation?
    What do we need to do to meet our purpose?
    What do we do to enable our people to achieve?
    How can we ensure our people are safe and feel safe?
    How can we ensure our people feel connected to the organisation?
    Can our people work together anywhere?
    What is the wider impact on the planet of our business?
    What has worked over the last few months? What hasn’t?
    How do these circumstances affect our future business continuity plans?

Further digital transformation

I’ve talked a fair amount about how people are more accepting of change, but not necessarily why. It might seem obvious to some but not to others. However, it is the recent success of digital transformation on a national, if not global, business level which has shown that change is possible, can be done quickly, and can be successful.

When it comes to technology, people are often scared of it; why learn how to use new software when the existing version still works, if a little more slowly? We see our future selves as strangers, and something that might be a hindrance now but a lifesaver later can seem removed from ourselves. However, being thrown in at the deep end has demonstrated better than any presentation could that technology is an essential lifeline.

As such, it’s imperative to evaluate the digital transformations you’ve undertaken and carefully examine what has worked and how these fit in with the future vision of your company – not with what it was like but what it will be like.

It can seem like a significant investment, but technology has the power to give you an edge over your competitors and now, more than ever, that edge is vital.

Overall, listening to your employees, evaluating your business needs and goals and assessing how technology can be leveraged to your benefit will make the return to work that much closer and much more manageable.

Simone Fenton-Jarvis is workplace consultancy director at Ricoh UK.

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