Return-to-Workplace Prep—A Case Study Based on 900+ Companies

Coronavirus (COVID-19) HR Management & Compliance stress

On a scale of 1–10, how confident are you with your company’s return-to-workplace (RTW) plan? plan

In mid-May, we surveyed 142 companies, and on average, scores were at a 5 out of 10, with a wide range between 0 and 8. This range is not surprising. Developing an RTW plan is an “adaptive challenge.” Companies haven’t handled it before, so there are no proven solutions.

At LifeLabs Learning, we train managers, executives, and teams to thrive in times of change and uncertainty, so we’ve been eager to learn what differentiates companies navigating RTW best.

When we asked those that rated themselves as most confident in their RTW plan, they all had one thing in common. While most companies are jumping straight to decisions around what to do (like whether there should be screening stations at the front desk or in the lobby), companies handling RTW best first align on how they’re making those decisions.

Below are the three patterns of decision-making processes that stood out across the best-prepared companies:

1. Distribute Responsibility

In times of stress, people want to make meaningful contributions. Companies doing RTW well start with a cross-functional task force. By distributing responsibility, you’ll get more help and a variety of perspectives while increasing buy-in for decisions.

If you need local solutions rather than all-encompassing mandates (because each city/state/country location has different regulations), a task force is also the best way to make sure local voices are heard.

2. Articulate the Decision-Making Process

Imagine there are two coins. Coin A lands on heads 60% of the time. Coin B lands on heads 50% of the time. If you were to bet on a coin landing on heads, which one would you put your money on? You’re a logical person, so you choose Coin A.

As it turns out, B lands on heads and A lands on tails. Did you make the wrong decision? No. Was the outcome what you wanted? No. If we base the merit of our decisions solely on the outcome, it is easy to be disappointed. The fix?

Make decisions you can stand behind, regardless of outcome, by clearly articulating your decision-making process (e.g., What are the decision criteria? Who will be included in the decisions and at what points?). Not only will you boost teamwide confidence and a sense of fairness, but you’ll also enable people to make faster, more independent decisions.

3. Set Implementation Intentions

Dates are not a reliable deciding factor for reopening offices because they can easily change, so what can your action triggers be? By creating implementation intentions (also known as if-then cues), you can make easier and faster decisions. For example, IF San Francisco lifts the stay-at-home order, THEN we’ll invite 10% of our workforce to return to the office. Or, IF stay-at-home is lifted and employees drive to the office, THEN they’ll be able to return.

Of course, once the decision-making process (i.e., the how) is determined and communicated, you can make some decisions (i.e., the what). Even in this regard, the best-prepared organizations demonstrate a propensity for structure.

Rather than responding to the onslaught of decisions and challenges as they pop up, the best RTW navigators create “buckets” of decisions to make (usually with the help of their task force). This bucket method simplifies conversations, speeds up decisions, and creates an opportunity for better distribution of responsibility.

In a different survey of 810 people operations and HR professionals, the following four “decision buckets*” came up most often:

  1. Communication:
    • What is our consistent communication cadence?
    • What channel(s) will we use?
    • Can we get information to the right people quickly enough?
    • How much advance notice will we provide?
    • How will we gauge employee comfort and sentiment?
  1. Workspace modification:
    • How will we reduce workspace density (including meetings and common areas)?
    • How many people are allowed in the office at any given time?
    • What do we need to change about the floor plan?
    • What safety signage should we display and where?
    • Who will come back and when?
  1. Screening and entrance:
    • What types of health screenings are required for employees? How often?
    • Who administers health screenings?
    • How will we handle positive results or symptoms?
    • What will we do about guests and vendors?
  1. Personal protective equipment:
    • What will be required?
    • Who will provide it?
    • How will we monitor and respond to employees not following protocol?

*To see a more robust list of decision buckets (and recommendations), visit the comprehensive RTW Guide LifeLabs Learning co-created with over 700 companies. 

Even the most confident and best-prepared companies aren’t anticipating a smooth transition. No matter how well we plan and future-proof our decisions, we should expect to make them, unmake them, remake them, and doubt ourselves along the way.

Our biggest takeaway from our conversations with a combined total of over 900 companies is that the best RTW plans are solid not because they have the right answers but because they have an adaptive and agile process. Putting a process structure in place decreases cognitive load, speeds up decisions, and lets us focus on more exciting things, like the work that we’ll actually get to do together.

Ashley Schwedt’s area of expertise is in leadership development, communication, and inclusive team dynamics. Her background is in social psychology, with a master’s degree in Social Systems from the University of Michigan and many years of experience in crisis management and agile project development. Her current research focus is on performance management and ways to successfully provide feedback in difficult situations (upward, across, and self-reviews).

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