Dear CEO: Here’s how to cope with ever-changing return-to-work plans

By Maynard Webb

January 19, 2022

Q. Just as we were trying to get people back to the office and back to normalcy, omicron surfaced and changed our plans again. I would still like people to come into work, but I don’t know what is reasonable to ask our employees. It’s complicated with people in different locations facing different situations. What should I do to keep us moving forward in a world that keeps getting interrupted?

 -CEO who is sick and tired of this

Dear CEO,

You surely are not alone. Look at the headlines and see what is happening with the professional sports teams. Games are getting cancelled; some leagues are put on hold. (As of this writing, the NHL has postponed more than 100 games this season.) All the companies I work with are grappling with the situation of new strains and rising numbers and finding that nothing is static. And, as you rightfully point out, based on where you are in the world, everything is different.

 

 

So, what are you to do? First and foremost, you have to stay committed to keeping people healthy and well. Next, you have to be ready to make decisions fast. Finally, don’t hesitate to adjust as situations evolve.

Companies with myriad offices face further complexities and have been taking different approaches. Some companies decided to let every region figure it out, while others have been making decisions centrally. Some companies have been mandating vaccines or employees lose their jobs, while others have been less strict. Even in those cases, we’ve seen the date of the mandates being pushed out or modified due to omicron.

I know that everyone wants to be free to make their own decisions, and leaders of companies want to get back to normal, thinking beyond surviving to thriving. Many employees are feeling anxious about returning to a busy office building—some have kids that are just getting vaccinated or children not yet eligible for the vaccine or booster.

There are questions you can be asking to help you make decisions about how to return to work (again):

  1. Is it safe? This is the most important question to keep in the forefront.
  2. Is it necessary? We saw amazing advances with what can be accomplished without being together. Certain jobs require physical presence, but others don’t. While I need to go to the dentist if I have a toothache, I’ve had doctors make diagnoses through telehealth conferences. I think it’s better when humans are together, but do we need to be together all of the time, or some of the time, or none of the time? It’s easier to build a culture in person than it is on Zoom (see the Great Resignation). At the same time, is being in an office worth some of the costs, including risking one’s safety and spending time commuting?
  3. What do your people want? There are some employees who prefer a life untethered to an office and appreciate not having to commute or travel. Let’s not pretend we need to live in pre-COVID times. We have proved remote work can work. Having a company mandate that forces people to go to work could backfire. We are seeing record rates of attrition and people changing jobs more than ever. Understand the changes in the environment and behavior and reflect that in your plan.

Just a few months ago, we were focused on getting back to a new normal and we were getting closer to achieving that. I know it feels like a step back, but we have to continue to embrace some of the same mindset we had last year. We should remain flexible and ready to change in a rapidly changing world. The word that should define our approach is empathy. Let’s put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and show more compassion and grace for what others are going through.

It is not clear when we will be back on terra firma—I’m expecting things to be complicated for some time. In the meantime, engage in a lot of listening and take care of your organization so that the entity that provides people jobs stays well and the employees stay healthy and engaged.

I wish us all good luck and wisdom navigating these extremely difficult times.

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