After more than a year of fear and worry, things are beginning to look brighter on the COVID-19 front. As the world begins crawling back to some form of normalcy, it's time to start planning. At the top of the list for IT managers is determining how and where their teams will work now that traditional workplaces are gradually becoming safe environments.
There are likely to be many people who don't want to return to the workplace, and it’s not always going to be because they're worried about COVID-19, said Pieter VanIperen, managing partner at IT advisory firm PWV Consultants. "Some people have discovered the freedom of flexibility and found that remote work fits their lives better," he explained.
IT has proven that, by and large, most aspects of work can be decoupled from the office, said John Annand, research director, infrastructure and operations, at Info-Tech Research Group, an IT market research firm. "The difference between an at-home and on-site worker is no longer a matter of marginal access, exorbitant cost, or barely accessible performance levels and efficiency metrics," he noted. "IT has empowered the business to find the balance of on-site and at-home that works for business reasons rather than infrastructure reasons."
Start planning immediately
IT leaders should begin considering their return to work options/plans now, continuously reviewing and adjusting their strategies as local conditions evolve. "Many of the organizations I work with had plans in place for most employees to return to the workplace this spring," said Jennifer Schuster, a principal at employee benefits communications firm Segal Benz. Other enterprises are considering postponing a return to on-site work and/or planning to continue permanent remote work for at least some parts of their workforce.
In either case, a final plan should be developed prior to employees returning to the office. "It should also be understood that adjustments will likely need to be made once the return happens," VanIperen said. "No one can predict the future, so it's important to have a backup plan in place as well," he added. Key factors to consider when developing a plan include the IT tasks that must be addressed, which tasks can be performed remotely, how many employees can be in the office at any given time, and the status of current projects.
Employee health and safety should always be paced first, said Sarah Pope, future of technology leader at IT advisory firm Capgemini Invent. Other factors to consider include staff and information security. "New employer trends include reconfiguring physical office spaces to [not only] meet health and safety standards first, but to enhance collaboration and make the offices a place for meeting rather than just working," she added.
Communicate promptly and clearly
IT leaders should be proactive and transparent when communicating with their teams about workplace policies. "It's important to understand employees' needs and to keep a clear and consistent dialogue with them about the future of the workplace and employee expectations," Pope explained.
It's best to sit down with returning workers and discuss how they can return to the office and still have the flexibility they may desire. "Each employee will likely have to be handled on a case-by-case basis," VanIperen observed. "Business owners will benefit by conducting surveys with employees to find out what they prefer so that any potential problems can be addressed early," he added.
Any changes in work conditions should be communicated to employees from their direct managers. Notifying an employee about their future working conditions should be a conversation between the employee and her or his manager, Annand said. "The messaging should be worked out in advance with HR and senior leadership," he suggested.
It's also important to listen to your team members and to work with them to find ways to provide the flexibility they need. "It’s important that workers in both at-home and in-office environments feel engaged and empowered," Pope advised. "This means thinking about the office differently, giving employees what they need to work outside of it, and creating an IT culture that's engaging both the digital and physical world."
Looking forward, the most likely scenario for many IT organizations will be a mix of remote, on-site, and hybrid remote/in-office teams. "It would be wise, before assigning staff to different groups, to see where people align themselves," VanIperen noted. "There are folks who don't want to work remotely, or don't want to work on-site every day."