The world is slowly opening up again. But a phased return to office life means embracing change, just as working under lockdown did. A solid diversity and inclusion strategy, therefore, is more important than ever.
A new way of working
Lockdown has changed lives and attitudes across all cultures. Some employees may have rethought their career, or personal goals. Others may have suffered bereavement, or felt stressed by the added responsibilities of home-schooling children, or caring for elderly parents. Others, who were perhaps unhappy with their office dynamic, may have taken comfort in their home environment and be feeling nervous about a return to ‘normal’. Companies need to consider and embrace these changes, rather than attempt to force employees back to the way things were.
Home or office?
Feelings about the return to the physical workplace will inevitably be mixed. There are those who have happily adapted to working from home and want to keep it that way. Others, who have had a taste of office life as premises open again, can’t wait to get back, whether it’s for the technology, the social side or the simple separation of work from home. The reality is that those companies phasing office time back in will need to draw up rotas in order to comply with social distancing rules. This is likely to be a juggle, as managers need to take so many individual circumstances into consideration. Consultation with teams, inclusivity and fairness are essential.
Employee health is more of a consideration than ever. Managers should be sensitive to the fact that some individuals who have a long commute may feel uncomfortable using public transport in peak hours, for example. Those who feel more vulnerable, or have underlying health issues, or vulnerable people in their social bubble may not feel ready to return to an office. Nobody should be excluded because of their individual circumstances. Consider, too, how to manage employees who are forced to self-isolate at home for whatever reason. Create an inclusive, open culture where team members are not going to feel pressured or worried if they have to do this. Nobody should risk the health of others by feeling they have to come into the office.
Keep your team connected
Managers need to be absolutely clear that team members who are working remotely, or are not part of the first phase of employees returning to the physical workplace, are not excluded socially. Whatever imaginative social practices were put in place during lockdown, from virtual coffee mornings to happy hour, weekly one-on-one with managers and hangouts for exchanging ideas need to be kept in place and used by everybody, including those in the office. These are, in any case, useful practices when teams are working in different countries, or time zones.
Trust and flexibility
Maintaining trust is essential. If employees are shuttling between office time and home working time, managers’ expectations need to account for this. The pattern of the working day may be different when working from home. Trust, communication and effectiveness should be given priority over clocking in and out. Accept that creativity and productivity don’t just happen in conventional working hours, or in one country’s time zone. Manage an individual’s energy, not their time.
Work on what’s been learned
Many employees have had to embrace video calls during lockdown and team leaders have had to learn to manage these calls, getting used to a world where body language is less easy to read and only the most confident speak up. Many would say they’ve developed new skills as their cross-cultural video call technique has evolved into something more inclusive and considered. As life returns to normal, it’s important to hold onto these skills. On video calls where some participants are together in an office and others are working remotely, maintaining this inclusivity is more important than ever.
Use collaborative systems to manage projects, so that team members in any location and any time zone stay up to speed. Much of this software has chat functions, too, so the virtual watercooler remains a feature and office banter can continue, regardless of whether someone is physically present. Managers should continue to ensure that the language and tone used in casual chat is appropriate and respectful.
Keep mental wellbeing in mind
Just because businesses are returning to their physical office spaces doesn’t automatically mean everything is as it was before. Relationships and dynamics within a group may have shifted and emotions and opinions may have intensified. So, keep open all the channels of communication that were so creatively used in lockdown to maintain relationships. If anything, offer even more communication than before, as returning to ‘normal’ will add more pressure to those who aren’t ready.
Keep D&I as a top priority
Companies should renew their commitment in the ‘new normal’ to putting people first. Values like diversity and inclusion, which may have sunk lower on the priority list in the darkest days of lockdown, need to be given top priority. As businesses emerge from the crisis leaner, attracting the best talent will become even more important – and companies that embrace diversity and inclusion have been proven again and again to be more creative, agile and innovative in their thinking.
WRITTEN BY SUE BRYANT
Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.