New Normal Considerations for Returning to the Office

March 2020 sent a shockwave around the globe. Like death and taxes, school and work had until that moment been considered inviolable. They would continue up until the apocalypse, and perhaps even after, wouldn’t they?

Suddenly, though, things were different. The initial wave of the pandemic required quick and reactionary measures, with little time to consider what the long-term implications might be. Changes to work processes and service delivery were made out of necessity, with the assumption that these changes would be temporary – but again, with no real idea of what the future would look like.

Fast forward to today, and the conversation that started in 2020 – what does a return to the workplace look like? – is still continuing. Much of the focus remains on management, safety and logistics, and employers are still asking many of the same questions:

  • What legislative requirements do we need to consider?
  • How will daily operations be impacted by new processes?
  • How can we best accommodate the needs of our employees?
  • What’s the ideal way to balance productivity and worker satisfaction?
  • How should we update old working models?
  • What role do public health measures play in our “new normal”?

After several years of on-again, off-again temporary measures, and with vaccination rates steadily increasing across Canada and the globe, companies are no longer quite as clueless about what the much-discussed Return To The Office will entail. But that doesn’t mean all the questions have been answered.

The Changing Canadian Workplace

Today’s workforce has voiced its opinion loudly: We love working from home. We’re not just talking about anecdotal reports, either.

“Hybrid work has improved the overall wellbeing of a number of Canadians (68.8 per cent),” reports Financial Post. “Over three-quarters of workers reported that they were happier (75.7 per cent) and had a better work-life balance (71.2 per cent).”

Workers saved up to eight hours a week on commuting, with a majority saving at least 4 hours. Along with reduced commuting time, less money on gas and more flexible working schedules were difference-makers for lots of people. Moreover, “Almost half (44.6 per cent) of Canadians shared that their financial well-being improved while working remotely.”

These are huge changes, with the potential to overhaul the productivity and mental health of large swaths of the population.

Of course, not everyone can offer their employees at-home work. Some companies need their people at the office at least part time, while others – especially industries that depend on manual labour – will always require their staff in person or in the field.

No matter what form your workplace return will take, it’s time to consider what the new normal will look like.

Best Practices for Returning to the Workplace

From in-person to telecommuting to today’s new hybrid work models, there are a number of factors to consider when planning your organization’s return to the workplace. And as we navigate these changing times, there are a few best practices to keep in mind.

Utilize Opportunities

The stressors of the pandemic may have highlighted practices within your organization that no longer serve it or your customers well. While the impact of the last several years has been extreme, it has at least pointed out where you have the space to make positive change.

For instance, perhaps you need to make a more concerted effort to engage with employees in creating the desired workplace culture. Or maybe it’s time to identify and update inefficient processes and focus on developing a go-forward strategy. Do you need to centre your employees or your customers more, rather than taking a business-as-usual approach? Where can you get their help in making those changes?

The bottom line is, this liminal time makes room for you to change while people are still flexible, while much is still up in the air. So take that opportunity, but remember: a successful transition relies on the ability of leaders to be deliberate in their decision-making, to communicate clearly and to maintain a flexible mindset.

Be Intentional

As you review the state of your organization, establish how your values may have shifted. Determine what’s important to your company and set expectations accordingly. Take some time to assess how your business has been impacted. Questions should include:

  • What disruptors occurred within the last several years that benefited your business?
  • What shortcomings became obvious within your organizational culture or work processes?
  • How can you fix them?
  • What accommodations have you made since the pandemic began that you would never have considered in pre-pandemic times?
  • How have these accommodations positively impacted your organization?
  • Which practices offer continued benefits?
  • Which do not and need to be shifted away from?

In addressing these and similar questions, many organizations are recognizing that there’s been a shift in their values or long-term goals, and that’s okay. The point is not to berate anyone for choices made during a time of stress and panic, but rather to learn from the past.

If you want to create a healthy office environment going forward, it’s time to answer such questions with intention and seize the opportunities for change discussed above. Then, it’s time to communicate that to the people who matter.

Communicate Clearly

As we settle into this new normal, we cannot overstate the importance of clear communication. Many organizations have adopted the use of virtual platforms in the last few years. While this has enabled much of the digital commuting that has so improved our lives, it also brings challenges – not the least of which is communication.

Today, it’s more critical than ever to set expectations, and that will continue as employees return to a physical environment or cement their business relationships from a virtual office. Communication needs to be clear, open and as frequent as possible to keep the team connected and to provide ongoing updates.

How you communicate lays the foundation for the culture you’re creating. It is important for leaders to focus on employee and workplace culture. It is also their job to create space for meaningful connections within organizational teams at work.

The good news is, whether from separate homes or a communal break room, employees are looking for the same thing: a human experience at work. If you can offer that experience with technological solutions, while maintaining solid expectations and productivity thresholds, you are likelier to keep good workers around – and to see bottom-line benefits too.

Be Flexible

As conversations around returning to the workplace continue, cultivating a mindset of open curiosity and innovation is crucial for leaders. Change management has been a popular topic for years, and the pandemic has given us a new understanding of what that reality might look like.

The truth is, how we manage change is reflective of our ability to grow and adapt. The pandemic has increased our awareness of how quickly circumstances can change and how important it is to be able to pivot. Companies that have done this well have thrived.

We know that returning to the workplace and creating a new normal won’t be a clear-cut process. Variables and situations will change, new information will come available, and the ability to adjust is what will set organizations and leaders apart. Pay attention to the above, and that might just be you.