David Smith FCPA, founder of Smithink, member of several boards and consultant to professional services firms, has been deeply involved in discussions about how to manage the post-COVID return to work.
The most important fact to accept upfront, he says, is that there is no template. This is one of the rare problems in business that will not have a shared solution across any two companies. The solution instead depends on location, industry, the mix of individuals, the personal situations of every one of those individuals, office size and floor space, where in a building the office is located, and much, much more.
“A lot of firms are now talking about what they’re going to do,” Smith says. “They’re asking how they are going to start bringing people back into the office. As part of that discussion, they also need to figure out how we deal with people who say they don’t want to return, because they’re quite happy and feel safer working from home.
“It does really depend heavily on the individual circumstance of each staff member. If they have spent the past month or two trying to work at home, and they have young, school-aged kids, it might have been a nightmare, and they might be desperate to come back to the office. Others might miss the social interaction or the collaboration. You really do have to establish the individual circumstance of each person before developing a solution.”
“The most important fact to accept upfront is that there is no template. This is one of the rare problems in business that will not have a shared solution across any two companies.” David Smith FCPA, founder, Smithink
Such intelligence-gathering requires surveys and individual conversations, some of it by well-briefed line managers. However, that’s not the only ingredient required for success.
That information, Smith says, must be combined with the organisation’s requirements. For example, a business that manages vital infrastructure and that therefore can’t afford for several of its staff to be knocked down by a disease at the same time, might bring a “red team” and a “blue team” back to work on different days. That way, essential staff on each team never cross paths.A thorough, daily disinfection of all office surfaces further protects against contagion.
Does that solve all issues? Not even close, Smith says. What about teams who are far more productive when they are working together in the same area of an office, Smith asks.
How do you ensure they all return? What about individuals whose roles mean they should be fine to work from home, but who have proven to be unproductive outside the office environment? What if hot-desking, now an absolute no-no, was previously part of your work process, or you simply don’t have enough office space to ensure social distancing, or some staff are in high-risk groups? The potential complications are enormous.
When EY surveyed more than 6000 of its staff, it discovered that 43 per cent were comfortable to return to the office, but happy to wait. Another 20 per cent wanted to keep working from home, and 11 per cent wanted to return to the office as quickly as possible. The company has cancelled hot-desking and has asked those returning to work to book a specific desk during a trial period, which will see support staff and about 11 per cent of professionals coming back to the office.
It is this type of workforce research and testing that Smith recommends. With so many variables, research is the only way to develop a strategy that suits the very specific environment within a business’s workplace.