Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Back to Work in the COVID-19 Era: How Do Employees Feel & Where Do We Go From Here?

Back to Work in the COVID-19 Era
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With re-openings ramping up, stringent safety requirements at the workplace are a new reality for the foreseeable future. From basic sanitary measures like mask requirements, social distancing and frequent handwashing to more advanced tools like infrared temperature scanners and contact tracing, “business as usual” is a thing of the past. This leaves us asking, “how will the average business ease back into having employees return to the office? And most importantly, how do employees really feel about their safety right now?” My team and I have been grappling with these questions for months.

As a starting point for our re-opening strategy, Quovant conducted an internal poll in May to gather insight from our employees on their back-to-work preferences. We also plan on another survey this month to see what else we may learn. Our goal was to gain more intel on the following:

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  • How our employees have managed the last couple months – productivity rates, employee satisfaction, etc.
  • When and how they want to begin working in the office again.
  • More on those who prefer the flexibility of working remotely or don’t feel safe returning to a physical setting until a vaccine is available.

Let’s look at what we found:

How do our employees feel about going back to the office?

When asked if they’d like to return to the office full-time upon stay-at-home orders being lifted, about 58% of respondents said “no.” Reasons ranged from health safety concerns to more flexible scheduling and increased productivity, especially since lengthy commutes have been taken out of their workdays.

In fact, of those who answered “no” to returning to the office, the most common reason was productivity-related, as most respondents admitted to being more productive when working from home. Employees noted distracting aspects of the office environment such as chatty co-workers, comfort, commutes that eat up valuable time, and the need to communicate with family members throughout the day rather than being able to coordinate family needs more easily from home. These respondents made up more than half (57%) of those who do not want to return to the office at this time.  

Of those who said health safety concerns are their main motivator to continue working remotely, they widely noted they aren’t comfortable returning to the office until a vaccine is available, that they or a family member are immunocompromised or that staying home will allow them to more safely interact with loved ones and family. These respondents made up just over half (51%) of those who do not want to return to the office at this time.

Miscellaneous reasons noted for preferring to work from home included: decreased ‘wear and tear’ on their vehicles; less money spent on gas; the ability to more easily coordinate child care as schools and day cares have been closed; and being home for their pets.

On the other hand, about 42% responded “yes” when asked if they’d like to return to the office (however, the majority of those who responded yes do not want to come back to the office full-time just yet, but instead prefer to come back for one or two days a week). Nearly all of these respondents noted in-person interaction and collaboration as their top reason for preferring to work from the office, as it affects their morale and productivity.

Miscellaneous responses included: less technological roadblocks when at the office; a more conducive setup (desk, dedicated working space, etc.); and an aversion for virtual meetings and increased phone calls.

So, what’s our solution?

Until we can be certain that the risks of COVID-19 are as minimized as possible and that it’s safe for all employees to return to the office, Quovant has decided to optimize the safest approach for all team members. Everyone has been encouraged to continue working from home for the foreseeable future, but for the minimal number of employees who have requested to come in, safety precautions have been put into place. This includes requiring masks, additional sanitization practices, an emphasis on handwashing and social distancing measures, including the requirement that employees make appointments to utilize the office space.

Our team has learned a lot about what we’re able to accomplish in differing circumstances during this time, especially how we can conserve resources with more employees potentially working remote long-term. In fact, the last few months have been a huge eye-opener on which team members and departments can function sufficiently from home (contrary to what we may have believed before).

To avoid hiccups, we implemented a time-tracking tool that allows us to comprehensively review team members’ work, time and productivity as they operate remotely. The transparency has helped our leadership team adjust their management strategies accordingly and has made the transition to the “new normal” much easier. Because of our open communication and rapport with our team, this has proved to be a positive experience for all. This phase has also allowed us to re-evaluate the office space, structure and assets we need to run an efficient and productive business. We’re looking forward to our continuing evolution and ongoing support for our employees by offering a more flexible schedule moving forward.

Lessons Learned

Tapping into our team’s preferences, workstyles and personal/professional needs provided us with valuable insights to make better leadership decisions. Collecting this information not only gave our management team an inside look at the employee perspective, it also presented an opportunity to boost employee morale, show our support and make organizational changes that cater to today’s complex circumstances.

We were also able to surface other aspects that affect our employees’ performance and satisfaction that will ring true long after the pandemic has settled, such as long commute times, lagging technologies and internal processes, and flexibility needs for personal matters. These findings have inspired us to continue to have regular conversations and conduct ongoing polls. Additionally, we’ve chosen to develop an engagement group. This initiative encourages open communication and ongoing dialogue to ensure employees have the tools they need to be successful as we continue to function remotely.

We live in an age where virtual work is easier than ever, but we also have to recognize that it’s not for everyone. Being one of those fortunate companies that can operate remotely when needed, it’s become clearer that business leaders in the same boat can leverage this to better cater to their teams, which in turn will spur stronger performance and employee loyalty. For instance, are your offices in urban areas with highly congested traffic? Consider implementing designated remote days for employees on a weekly basis. Do the majority of your team members have families or small children? Encourage flexible hours when possible so they don’t have to choose between family and their careers. This is especially important as school districts across the country are currently juggling their back-to-school plans.

Overall, it’s important to consider these issues, ensure employees feel heard, and put their health and safety at the forefront. “Business as usual” may be behind us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do business better as we look to the future.

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