In this episode of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast, Bryghtpath Principal & Chief Executive Bryan Strawser discusses returning to the office in the age of COVID-19. In other words, when it’s time to go “back to the office” – what will that look like for millions of employees and their companies?
Topics discussed include the “new normal”, potential government restrictions and regulations, personal protective equipment in the workplace, social distancing, crisis leadership, and more.
Related Episodes & Blog Posts
- Episode #92: Novel Coronavirus
- Episode #94: Personal and family preparedness for Coronavirus
- Episode #95: Lessons learned to date from the Coronavirus fight
- Episode #96: Crisis leadership in the time of Coronavirus
Bryan Strawser: Hello and welcome to the Managing Uncertainty podcast. This is Bryan Strawser, principal and chief executive here at Bryghtpath. As we continue through this coronavirus crisis that we’re faced with globally right now, and we’re recording this episode in the middle of April 2020, I think it’s important to start thinking about what will things look like when we decide that we’re on the other side of this challenge when we’re on the other side of this crisis, and as crisis and continuity and business leaders within companies, what do we need to start thinking about in terms of going back to the office?
Bryan Strawser: I want to say going back to work, but of course, most folks, our jobs, or a lot of folks are in jobs where you’re able to work remotely, although we do have workers, food service, restaurants, production and manufacturing and agriculture that are continuing to go to work every single day and continuing to make this reduced economy able to continue to function. I want to recognize the sacrifices those folks are making and the challenges that they’re faced with.
Bryan Strawser: But as business leaders, I think we start to think about what does it look like when we get on the other side of this crisis and we start to think about returning to the office and bringing teams back into the workforce and reopening the economy as the President likes to say. First is I think that there’s a number of really hard choices that we’re making right now, but I also think there are choices that we have to think about over the coming weeks before we can return to the office before we can really move forward into whatever that new normal or next normal is going to look like.
Bryan Strawser: There are some hard choices ahead. I mean, for example, as we’ve shifted, as companies have shifted to remote work, I think officially or unofficially, a couple of things have happened. We’ve formed some new team structures or new team dynamics. As we talked with a number of employers over the last couple of weeks, clients and others in the industry our clients are in, one of the things that have stood out is that there’s been a fair amount of silo-busting that has gone on because the urgency of the situation required it. We have some of these new team structures, officially or not, about working remotely.
Bryan Strawser: We also have some new rule sets on leading remotely. In some cases, I think in your own experiences, you’ve probably seen leaders who have excelled at this who have a really come into their own as a remote leader, as a virtual collaborative leader, and on the other side of that, I think you may have seen some leaders who perhaps excelled at the in-person collaborative leadership but struggled with the new rule set about leading remotely.
Bryan Strawser: Then you probably have worked with some great leaders who were great leaders in an in-person environment and are great leaders in an online environment because they’re just great leaders, but I think there have been some new rule sets established, some new cultural and societal norms within your business and across businesses more broadly about this collaborative online virtual work experience we’ve had.
Bryan Strawser: We have companies that have had to invest in the right collaboration processes. There were companies that did not have a very good collaborative culture in terms of working remotely. They expected that meetings that were held were going to be the place where decisions were made and discussions were had, and if your butt wasn’t in the seat, then you weren’t a participant. You weren’t a stakeholder in that. But now, the seats are gone because we’ve been working remotely, and so they’ve had to invest in technology and capabilities and have gone through some cultural change along the way.
Bryan Strawser: One of the other challenges we’ve seen is this whole idea of you’re working from home, so you’re always on. Now, some of this culturally came about with the advent of the smartphone and more collaborative online technologies as email evolved, as tools like Slack and other persistent chat tools have come along that allowed for more asynchronous work, but now we’re all working from home, so when are you on and when are you off, and does that line even matter anymore? How does that change when we go back to the office?
Bryan Strawser: Working from home has probably led to some different productivity rules and expectations. One of our large clients, a Fortune 500 company, I remember early in the crisis their CEO saying very clearly to executives that we should not expect as much from our teams in the coming weeks because people are worried about the current situation and they’ve got kids in school during the day, and now, everyone’s around for the whole time and you’re not used to having everyone home while you’re trying to work from home and there’s a lack of social activities and things that you can go do, and so the expectations around productivity are probably different. When we go back to the office, does that change? What’s that going to look like?
Bryan Strawser: There’s definitely scenario planning to consider and decisions to be made in the coming weeks about this return-to-work situation for some parts of the country. This might come earlier. For harder hits part of the country, and I’m thinking about New York and New Jersey, Massachusetts, Florida, Michigan, this might not come for some time.
Bryan Strawser: This is also a time where there have been challenges around liquidity and what that means for the organization, what that cash management looks like as the business operating models have just been turned upside down with the economy and unemployment and a drop in spending. What does that begin to look like? Certainly, out of all of this, we likely have formed some ideas about new operating models for how the business could work, perhaps changes in how you want to structure and do the work and structure the team around the work within your organization that has been impacted through the COVID-19 crisis.
Bryan Strawser: Then lastly, this situation has forced a level of transparency with customers that we haven’t really seen before. Most companies, if you were providing business-to-business services, you had to be very open and honest with your clients about your capacity to lead, manage, and continue as a viable business through this crisis. Perhaps you’re still having to explain that. Vice versa, it’s the same relationship, the same challenge that you’ve been faced with likely with your own suppliers and providers of third-party services. Have they been able to continue their operations throughout the course of this pandemic and the impact it’s had on your business? There are obviously other examples, but these are some of the, I think, tough decisions and current and upcoming challenges that are worth thinking about as you consider what elements need to be a part of a return-to-the-office strategy.
Bryan Strawser: Then lastly, I think one of the bigger challenges we’re going to see, and not just as companies, but in organizations, but I think as societies in general, and that is I expect there’ll be significant mental health challenges across the board as the crisis continues and abates and we begin to transition back. For companies and organizations, nonprofits and others that are listening, I think the more that you can provide mental health resources to your team through your health care plans and benefits, I think that’s valuable. I also think that the more resources that you can connect them to is good. Also, what training or guidance that you can give to your leaders about checking in on their team and about being willing to recommend or point these resources, point a team member to these resources will be important.
Bryan Strawser: How will we know that it’s time to go back to the office? I think this is one of the great questions that we’re all struggling with right now. Three factors I think we can consider, and of course, we’re a little bit subservient to the role of governments in making this decision, but we’ll know it’s time to go back to the office when some combination of three things happen.
Bryan Strawser: The first that there’s a decline in cases or a decline in new cases that gets to a level that we’re comfortable saying, “Yes, I could go back and resume operations in this environment.” Second, that the public health response shifts to a more relaxed posture, so the hospitals are not overly crowded, we’re not having these strict public health measures and personal protective measures in place, that we see the public health response begin to shift to something more relaxed.
Bryan Strawser: Then third, that there’s some availability of either antibody testing so we can tell who’s positive and who’s not and who is immune and who’s not or an effective vaccine. Of course, we’re not going to see an effective vaccine for many, many months unless some miraculous effort happens, so where some combination of declining cases, shift in the public health response, and the availability of antibody testing and perhaps a vaccine vaccination will be the things that we expect to see.
Bryan Strawser: It’s also we’re thinking about what the new normal looks like. When we return to work, when we return to the office rather, I don’t think that it’s going to be the way it was before the COVID-19 crisis came upon us. It will be the new normal or the next normal as some are calling it. I think that’s where thinking about now, I think it’s worth putting together structure about what this should look like, what this could look like now so that your organization is prepared.
Bryan Strawser: I would recommend that you pull together a return-to-the-office planning group within your organization today. I would do it this week. I would look at things like what are the return-to-office options, is it that we are going to suddenly all just come back and once, which I think is unlikely, but it is it a comeback in stages, and if it’s going to be a comeback and stages, what do you want to bring back first? What would make the most sense for your organization?
Bryan Strawser: The second big factor is what possible public health or government restrictions, regulatory restrictions might be in place before you can return to the office? It’s almost like how restrictions were put into place during the ramp-up of this a month ago where things were slowly turned off. Well, now we’re going to slowly turn things back on. Is it that half of the workforce comes back to the office in the first week? Maybe it’s 25%. Maybe it’s even less.
Bryan Strawser: Is there a social distancing requirement? For example, do you need to make sure that seats in the workspace are more than six feet apart? What does that do to your conference rooms or your cubicle and office configurations? What if only personnel that has had negative tests are allowed to return or personnel who demonstrate the existence of antibodies? Will you need to provide personal protective equipment like cloth or surgical masks or N95 masks in order for your workforce to return to the office? We don’t know what government might require, and states may approach this differently, so I think it’s worth considering all of the options and then where you want to plug into those options.
Bryan Strawser: From a strategic standpoint, I think there are two important questions that you should ask as a business leader. One is how will your collaboration and operating models change? What’s going to be different about how you operate when the workforce returns to the office? What do you want to capture from what’s been going on? Second, what do you want to adopt from the work-from-home era of coronavirus? What’s gone on that you’ve liked? What’s going on that you like that you want to bring into the new era of coronavirus, this new back-to-the-office era? What’s gone on that has really benefited the company that you want to make a part of this? I think it’s worth thinking about that strategically and then making plans and options to be able to do that.
Bryan Strawser: Then lastly, as you think about this return to the office, one of the most important things in my mind is don’t forget about capturing lessons learned and use those lessons learned to your advantage. I think that this is a great opportunity for crisis management and business continuity and global security leaders to take on a stronger leadership role within their organization. The after-action process, your lessons learned process is a great opportunity to capture these lessons and then use those to get the resources that you need for your program. Maybe you’re well-resourced, and you don’t need to make this kind of an argument, but I think for most leaders out there, this is a great opportunity to grow your organization, raise the stature of your team and yourself, and use this to get the resources you need for that next crisis situation down the road.
Bryan Strawser: Love to hear your thoughts and feedback. Drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s it for this edition of Managing Uncertainty. We hope to have you around for the next episode. Be well.