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Waiting for the perfect date to reopen? Here’s what you should do instead

This past July, I hosted a dinner with more than 30 workplace leaders in San Francisco. Originally, I wanted to host it in August or September. But everyone I spoke with told me those months were off the table. Their organizations planned to reopen in September and they needed to be “all in.” 

I could sense their stress. September 1 was supposed to be a big date in the workplace industry. Many companies, including Apple, Google, Facebook, and Twitter, had chosen this date for their official reopening. However, with concerns around the Delta variant, many organizations pushed their big reopening to early 2022. 

Companies are stressing about finding the perfect reopening date. But who’s to say something else won’t crop up that delays workplace reopenings again? The goal shouldn’t be to find the perfect day for a big welcome back event—because that date doesn’t exist. Instead, companies should aim to reopen safely and strategically. 

The perfect reopening date doesn’t exist 

Return dates have been postponed repeatedly over the past year. Now, many companies plan to bring their people back in 2022. According to McKinsey, nearly half of employees say their leadership has yet to tell them when they need to return to the workplace, and this lack of communication has left employees worse off. 

As for managers, they’ve reported that they’re growing more anxious as remote work continues. And for good reason. According to a social psychology study, it takes 18-254 days to form a new habit and 65 days for that new behavior to become automatic. Employees who have worked remotely for the past 18 months. They’ve adopted new habits, settled into new routines, and found new rhythms working from home. 

On top of that, no one knows when the pandemic will be over. We’ve had moments of hope over the past year and a half with restrictions getting lifted, only to have them put back in place when the pandemic worsened. It’s time we learn from the past and stop planning so far ahead. We can’t know what the future holds, and if we keep waiting for the perfect time to return, we’ll never go back. 

Instead, we should take a gradual approach to reopening the workplace. Here’s what you can do:  

  • Make sure your space is aligned with local COVID-19 regulations. Communicate expected workplace behaviors to employees in advance of their return
  • Reopen on a voluntary basis when you get the green light from your county/state
  • Get employees excited! Explain what resources will be available on-site

The majority of employees, 71% according to Envoy’s Return to the Workplace survey, have been craving time on-site. They don’t need a big party or event. They want the flexibility to work on-site when working remotely isn’t meeting their needs. They want to see their co-workers in person. They’re ready to form new habits around coming into the workplace. 

Create a safe space. But don’t overdo it with health and safety rules

After traveling in Europe for a month, I can report: I have seen the best and the worst in how to handle life under the pandemic. There were lines of people in front of restaurants and coffee shops that almost made it feel like a normal summer. The difference was people were waiting to get their COVID test results or have their proof of vaccination checked.

Trust me, you do not want to bring these regimens to your workplace. It is your role to guide employees to be safe when they come on-site. It is your role to upgrade your building with healthy indoor filters and establish clean air protocols. But you don’t want to become the health police, mandating people wash their hands before entering every room. 

The goal should be to create a safe, healthy, and welcoming environment, not a hostile one. Here are some actions you can take to accomplish this:

  1. Adopt the right tools. Invest in technologies that will help keep your people safe. For example, implement a visitor management system so you know who’s coming to the workplace and when. You can create a custom health check to confirm employees are healthy before they arrive. You can also set capacity limits and alerts to ensure you never have too many people at once.
  2. Update your physical workplace. Healthy buildings ensure people are healthy (and happy). If you haven’t done it yet, upgrade your ventilation system for better airflow. Use filters (my favorite product on the market is Biome) and add indoor plants.
  3. Develop a notification system. If a health incident does arise, make sure you can track where it started. You should be able to quickly notify employees who may be exposed. 

Your employees are your most valuable asset and they trust that you’ll go the extra mile to keep them healthy, happy, and safe. By taking the actions outlined above, you can create a refuge for employees to work and socialize with their long-missed colleagues. 

Shift the return-to-work narrative

For the past 18 months, news coverage has both celebrated remote work and questioned its efficacy. From my perspective, if you force your employees back to the workplace, you might push people to leave.

According to a recent survey, more than one-third of employees may leave their jobs within the next six months. The driving factor? A desire for flexible work. Instead, give your employees more control. The narrative shouldn’t be “you must come back to the workplace,” but rather, “here’s your workplace back.” 

Three ways to shift the narrative:

  • Stop calling your workplace an “office.” Instead, rebrand your workplace. Focus on communicating the purpose of your space. “The creative hive” and “the learning tower” are a few examples I’ve seen.
  • Remind your employees what they’re missing out on. Remote work may offer flexibility, but the workplace can be a space where people can collaborate, draw inspiration, and deepen connections with co-workers. 
  • Explain how you’re enabling workplace safety and flexibility with tools and clear processes.

Employees want more flexible work schedules and 52% of knowledge workers want an inclusive environment between remote and on-site teams. If workplaces are a tool of productivity, they belong to your employees. Your responsibility is to make sure the workplace is safe and designed with flexibility in mind. 

Companies have spent an immense amount of time building their infrastructure and physical spaces to exceed employee expectations. It’s true, the future is uncertain. But we can’t keep waiting for the grand opening of the new working world. As we adapt to the ongoing pandemic, communication will be key. Your job as a workplace leader is to create a safe, flexible workplace that gets people excited about returning. 

There is no perfect date to reopen the workplace. So let’s shift the narrative and give employees the flexibility they need to navigate this ambiguous time. 

Adopting a hybrid work model? Download Envoy’s ebook, How to identify and solve hybrid work challenges, to get practical tips for creating a workplace your people love.