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The Role of HR Leaders in Managing Employees’ Return to Work

June 18, 2020

As employees begin to return to the office after many weeks of being forced to stay-at-home, questions are brewing as to how to best manage the return to work. So many things have changed and the situation is far from clear.
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You might think that it’s a scary time to be in HR, and while that’s true, we also think it’s time for HR people to shine. Never before in history, have our workforces needed the guidance and leadership from Human Resources specialists more than right now.

So if you’re an HR professional (or if HR is a part of your role), your organization needs you more than ever to bring all the skills and tools your have, along with your compassion and resourcefulness to lead people through these times.

Here are some key considerations to keep in mind as your employees come back to the workplace…

Address Employee Health and Physical Safety

The first thing on many of your employees’ minds will be the health and safety aspects of returning to work. Clearly, things can’t return to the way they were previously and you’ve no doubt thought about new processes, procedures and way of working that will be implemented in order to keep everyone safe.

Keep in mind that as far as employees’ mindsets are concerned, perceived safety measures are almost as important as actual safety measures. Employees need to feel safe, as well as actually be safe. To help with this, make sure you’re completely transparent about all the safety measures you have in place, and get your teams involved in risk assessments and decision making.

Also, recognize that it is not just the safety of the work environment that might be causing concern. Some employees might be worried about their commute (on busy public transport) or the impacts of having their children in daycare. Try to find creative solutions to so that they can feel ok about returning to work.

Communicate Your Contingency Plans

Part of helping employees feel safe is to reassure them that you have plans in place should the situation change. It’s not ‘back to work, whatever the situation’, it’s ‘back to work if it seems right’.

An important element of this is to have a “Re-Exit Plan”. Employees will feel more comfortable if they know there’s a plan in place should there be a new surge in Coronavirus infections or if there is new unrest that seems dangerous.

You should also have a plan for a positive testing employee. Know exactly what will happen if one of your employees tests positive. In most cases, this would mean a rapid shut-down of the location involved and perhaps testing of other employees. Reassure your team that you’ll let them know if someone gets sick.

Acknowledge the Different Possible States of Mind

There might be some of your team members that are ready to be back at work. They’ve hated being at home, away from the action, and have missed the social aspects of the office. But equally, there might be other team members are dreading the return to work. They’ve discovered they enjoy being at home, or perhaps they’re terrified of returning to the office.

We need to stay open to all different states of mind.

Some employees have been directly affected by the pandemic, and others, not so much. Regardless of the actual situation though, there has been an emotional toll on most people. For some, this includes extreme grief, anxiety and fear. Many will have experienced challenging domestic situations, such as caring for a vulnerable relative and juggling childcare or, and some will be in the midst of financial worries – for instance, if their partner has had a reduction or a loss of income. Others will have experienced illness directly themselves.

So how do you deal with this range of emotions? Through communication.

Acknowledge that your employees are scared and address that issue directly. Be honest about why you’ve made the decisions you’ve made and how you intend to help them through. If possible, connect the ‘why’ to the vision of the organization and get people inspired to bring their best to work.

Show the Way Forward

The hardest part of all is to figure out how things will be different.

In other words, what does it all mean for your organization?

So much as changed in the last few months and we should not attempt to simply ‘go back to normal’. Instead, we should take this opportunity to do some soul searching and figure out how our organizations can change to be more inclusive, more adaptable, and better designed to help the communities they serve, and especially, their employees.

You probably don’t have all the answers yet, but you can still lead by acknowledging that things will be different. The events of the last few months might result in new decisions being made, new ways of working and even new ways of serving customers. There’s a lot up in the air. Be upfront in acknowledging that you don’t have the detailed roadmap, but show them the spirit in which you’re going forward.

Most importantly, invite them to be part of the future and seek their input in redesigning the organization they work for.

Spend some time working on the message you want to share with employees and do it from a place of positivity, compassion, and strength.

HR leaders: your employees need you more than ever. Be strong.

Why leave it there?

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