Creating A Safe Return To Work: 3 Things NOT To Do

One size does not fit all. Parthajeet Sarma shares three things that organizations should NOT do as we make our return to work.

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a parallel global outbreak of advice about what organizations should do in order to enter a ‘new normal’, as far as work and the workplace is concerned. We’ve seen a lot of information out there about what organizations should do for a safe return to work. Most of it makes a lot of sense but some do not. Since there is so much out there about what to do, it makes sense to consider the top three things that organizations should not do.

work from home
Work from home sounds nice in the beginning, but might not work for all in the long-term. Image via Unsplash.

1) Do not do what your competitor is doing.

Every industry domain has a few big leaders. Smaller players often aspire to be like them. Some players in the given market, who may be smaller or otherwise, at times, copy what the other guy is doing; especially if that action was seen as a contributor to success. Copying the successful leader can be a successful model for some cases, especially when the market is good. It may have worked in better times, but there is no guarantee of success, especially during a pandemic. Do not copy what larger organizations are doing now to return to work, without some thought.

Some larger players are making big announcements such as ‘70 percent of our people will work from home permanently’. This is no time to blindly follow them. There is a higher possibility that the ‘follow the leader’ approach will not working out this time because:

  1. It is not tried and tested: What is usually picked up in the press are the big announcements; the extreme ends of decision-making. What is unheard of is the smaller parts that go into making that one big decision. Even though much thought would have gone behind each one of those smaller decisions, it is important to realize that the bigger idea is not tried and tested. Even if the big announcement/idea does not work out, some of the smaller ones may. Without access to the complete decision making matrix of the announcer, following the leader may end leaving you in the dark.
  2. One size does not fit all: What works for one organization may not work for another, even if both are in the same industry. Company culture makes a big difference in the effectiveness of new employee initiatives. Regional differences play a big part. Employees’ socio-cultural backgrounds are different in different regions. What may be very easy for one organization to roll out, may become a nightmare for others. What works well in one country, may be an utter failure in another.

2) Do not think short term.

The immediate concern for many organizations is survival. A lot of focus and attention will towards this direction and understandably so. However, the focus here should not be to such an extent that you miss out on the medium-term and long-term opportunities. This is a very good time to explore long-term opportunities and take another look at the organizational mission if necessary. Any ‘heroic’ return to work decision that is bordering on radical, or based on a short-term survival-focus may do more harm than good in long-term. Remember: the impact of the pandemic is still not fully understood by anyone.

Products and services may require repositioning or may need to be repurposed. What was seen as ‘good-to-have’ in products and services in the pre-COVID-19 era, may become ‘must-haves’ in product and service offerings, especially where it concerns health and safety. In that sense, the pandemic is not a change agent, but an accelerator. The acceleration has helped too, in more ways than one. Everyone now knows the advantages of remote working. At the same time, everyone also knows the ugly side of working from home. There has been heightened interest in the people factor within organizations. There has been an acceleration of consumerism of employees, wherein employees are now looked upon as consumers or customers by organizations. They are being listened to, and action is being taken to make life easier for them. It is important to sieve through all of this information and identify how it can be carried forward on a medium to long-term basis for strategic advantage. The ability to do so today will be a powerful tool in the hands of management to carve out a resilient and better organization that can emerge stronger and sharper from the pandemic.

Retrofitting now for short-term gains may bring in much pain later. Image via Unsplash.

3) Do not retrofit or meddle with your real estate right now.

Stories of large and small organizations enforcing salary cuts and pink slips have come out in large numbers. For most organizations, the number one (i.e. highest) line item for costs is their people, hence why making cuts here has the most significant impact on the bottom line. The second highest is often real estate and its associated costs like fit-outs and the cost of running it.

As management realizes the immediate benefits of remote working, voices are being heard about the need to cut down on real estate dedicated to office work. A secondary narrative is the immediate need to retrofit existing workplaces, and change the layout in order to make them safe. Do not play ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ when it comes to furniture and fixtures as this can get expensive and complex. While the noble motive of making the workplace safer is appreciated, retrofitting is not the only way to make a workplace safe. There are many other low cost ways of doing it, like color tagging desks, combined with inexpensive QR codes and a staggered working policy. Similarly, the cost benefits of giving up excess real estate may be huge, in the short term. However this may cause more harm if looked upon in isolation. It is not inconceivable to imagine a scenario where nine months down the line the so-called ‘excess’ is needed again. This may happen if we need to get more people into the workplace because of reasons like diminishing productivity from a work from home policy or perhaps a product or service was repurposed or repositioned, leading to growth.

Knee-jerk reactions related to real estate and workplace infrastructure may turn out to be very expensive mistakes. Consider the entire ecosystem comprising of employees, customers, supply chain, products/services and others, keeping in mind a medium to long-term mission.

Adopt a mix of ‘work-from-work’ and ‘work-from-home’ and monitor.

OK, so what now?

So, should organizations do nothing then? While avoiding doing the above, you are also doing something about our situation. The collective return to work knowledge out there needs to be looked at from the context of individual organizations. One size does not fit all. Knee-jerk reactions may do more harm than good. This is a time to differentiate between things that are likely to work in the short-term and things that are likely to work in the long-term, and then set course. Since it is still an emerging and evolving situation, organizations ought to be more flexible and dynamic now than ever before. Such flexibility is easy to achieve if there is dynamic monitoring of work, workers and workplaces. Such monitoring over the next six to nine months, or whatever time it takes, will throw up very valuable insights. Such insights will help to create the blueprints for the future of the organization.

Organizations need to enable their HR, IT and CRE departments to work more cohesively than ever before. An organization exists because of their people and it has never been more important time to look after an organization’s external customers (those who buy) and internal customers (those who make). It is time to not just believe in people-centricity, but to act upon it.

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1 Comment

  • Hi,
    Very sensible writeup- i was really looking for a list of mechanical to-do’s.
    I really appreciate the fact you have gone a step deeper to make people understand long term vision vs short term and given your thoughts towards handling work spaces.

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