Three Common Flaws in “Back to Work” Plans and How to Fix Them

During the past few weeks, I’ve spoken to a number of organizations about “Back to Work” plans including a presentation to the National Governor’s Association Summer Workforce Symposium “Returning to Work – The Role of Workforce Development in Recovery.”  I’ve noticed three common flaws in many of the plans I’ve read or heard – a focus on place, rather than the work, an all or nothing strategy with no transition or adaptation period, and a lack of attention to the likelihood of a COVID-19 second wave. Here’s how to fix them:

Focus on Work, not Place
Language matters. “Back to work” or “return to work” language infers work was not being done previously. That we were only working if we went to a place, and since many of us weren’t in our traditional workspaces then work wasn’t happening. It undermines and dismisses all the innovative and creative ways employees have rapidly reset how they’ve done their jobs during extremely difficult times.

We need to shift the mindset and language. Work is what we do, not a place where we go.

The guiding question organizations need to ask is, “What do we need to get done and how, when, and where can we do it best while keeping everyone as healthy as possible and continuing to operate until it’s safe to work in the same space?”

Answers may range from some limited portion of staff working in a socially distanced way onsite while following safety protocols, to those that can continue to work remotely doing so through the end of the year or even until next summer. Without rushing employees back to the office, organizations have time now to stabilize operations and plan for what comes next when we will likely face a completely different reality on the other side of the pandemic.

This extra time also allows organizations to further build trust with employees. Building goodwill now lays the foundation for the loyal, engaged workforce that’s committed, productive, and ready to rebuild and grow the business.

With this pandemic, there’s no going back – back to the way things were before. It’s not back to work. It’s how, when, and where we work moving forward. It’s important to set that expectation.

Allow for a Transition and an Adaptation Period
While the shift to flexible and remote work during the start of the crisis happened almost overnight, the next stage shift in the way we work will not. Yet, I’ve already seen too many organizations revert to an “all or nothing” approach to work flexibility in their announcements.  Some plans set a date when “everyone will return” or decide real estate space is no longer needed because everyone will be remote.

Organizations need to allow for a hybrid transition “going back” period. That means most likely fluctuating combinations of remote/onsite work as well as flexible and staggered scheduling before settling into a new post-pandemic work reality. To shift and adapt how, when, and where work is done during this period based on prevailing health, safety, and operational resilience requirements, managers teams and employees will most likely need a new set of skills, tools and resources.  The good news is these same flexible transition planning, coordination and execution competencies will be needed, perhaps even more so, post-pandemic.

Plan for the Predicted Second Wave
Earlier this week Dr. Anthony Fauci warned, “We need to hunker down and get through this fall and winter because it’s not going to be easy.” Clearly, there’s an expectation the pandemic will get worse before it gets better. So how do we continue to work and run our businesses while keeping employees safe and healthy in a second wave? And do this without resorting to the broad stay at home orders we experienced in the spring?

According to a recent Harvard University paper, Policies for a Second Wave, the spring “shutdown” triggered the sharpest and deepest recession in the postwar period. Thirty million American’s lost their jobs during the shutdown’s first six weeks. We don’t want to repeat that if at all possible.

The paper explores numerous scenarios and options for mitigating a second wave of deaths and economic shutdowns. All rely heavily on an ongoing flexible approach to work. The authors write by “requiring those workers who are able to work from home to continue to do so” and “by reducing workplace contacts, this policy reduces deaths by Jan. 1 from 482,000 to 383,000.” They also explain such a policy allows for a less severe second-wave shutdown and as such, lower the unemployment rate.

Any “return to the office, safely together” plans (notice I’m avoiding “back to work” language) must recognize and account for the pandemic’s second wave. If those who can continue to work remotely at the highest levels, we can mitigate the economic and health impacts.

For more guidance on how to prepare your near-term and long-term future of work plans, listen in or read the transcript from my recent conversation on KMPG’s Board Insights Podcast.  I also discussed a number of these issues with economist Linda Nazareth on her Work and the Future Podcast.

Lastly, I’ve launched a new weekly audio series The Now and Next of Work. Listen in as I share a brief weekly audio clip with my thoughts on how organizations and employees can navigate this uncharted territory as we reimagine how, when and where we will work now…and next. Connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me @caliyost on Twitter to access the series.  In this week’s clip, I offer some encouragement and confidence that “we can do this!” Because I know we can, together.

Flexibility is our best bet to not only keep our organizations running, do our jobs, and manage our lives, but also the way we will rebuild, grow, and stay healthy and safe.