When your entire team has been working from home for the last year, planning a return to the office can feel daunting. 

What safety guidelines do you need to have in place? How do you communicate those new regulations and expectations? Do you bring everybody back at once or plan a phased return to work? 

There’s a lot to sort through, but there’s the good news. Your transition to remote work and setting up a home office for remote work had to happen almost instantaneously in order to keep your team safe, but now you can take some time to hash out your return to work plan. It deserves some careful thought and strategy. 

We know the entire world isn’t heading back into the office quite yet, but as vaccine rollouts offer a chance to move on to a post-pandemic “Next Normal,” businesses will need to be prepared.  

So, whether you’re already beginning that return process or want to get ready for the future, use this as your guide to return to your workplace in a way that’s strategic, organized, and — most importantly — safe. 

Developing a return to office plan

With the population of people vaccinated against COVID-19 growing each passing day, returning to the office may seem more feasible than it did previously.  

A survey by JLL in October 2020 found that 3 in 4 workers want to return to the office in some capacity post-pandemic. 

After months of remote work, this eagerness is justifiable, and your team should develop a detailed return to office plan that welcomes employees back to a safe working environment.  

Back to the office plans require flexibility, consideration of complicated practical issues, and a pinch of creativity.

When designing your return to work plan, focus on these key strategies:

  • Outline the reopening phases
  • Determine the screening and contact tracking protocols
  • Develop social distancing protocols
  • Create workplace health and safety protocols
  • Communicate return to work planning to employees
  • Develop crowd control protocols
  • Create protocols for workforce wellbeing

Your return to office work plan should be based on your company size, business model, geographic location, organizational culture, etc. There is no universal back to office plan. What might work for a Texas-based 50-employee startup may not work for a Silicon Valley Fortune 500 company.

Heading back to the office: How to prepare your workplace and your team

Thinking about returning to the office is exciting. But, it’s also nerve-wracking. Things won’t look or function the way they did before, and that can bring on some anxiety for everybody.

As with anything else, adequate preparation can help to calm everybody’s nerves. Here are a few tips to get your team and your office ready for your arrival. 

Tips for preparing your team

It’s important that you recognize that a good chunk of your workforce will probably be wary of coming back together in an office setting. Boost employee confidence and address return to work anxiety by:

  1. Clearly communicating your new procedures and safety guidelines
    You’ll need to implement the safety guidelines recommended by your state or country (more about those below). Send an email providing the details of these measures to your team to not only boost their understanding but also show them that you’re taking their safety seriously.

    Creating training courses that familiarize employees with these new procedures can help ensure compliance and make employees feel at ease in their return. 
  2. Giving employees an option
    If you have enough flexibility to manage this, don’t make the return to the office mandatory. Give your team members the option of a work from home programme. If they feel comfortable and confident enough to come back, they can. But, anybody who would rather stay home can continue their work there.
  3. Welcoming feedback and concerns
    Your employees should feel like they’re an active part of the return to the office. Provide regular opportunities for them to share feedback and voice their concerns — such as office hours or weekly town hall meetings. Not only will this let you reassure them, but it will also help you consistently improve your office environment and procedures. This is going to be a learning process for everybody.   

Tips for preparing your office 

When it comes to preparing your physical space, a lot will depend on your environment, the size of your team, and more. However, some general recommendations for improving and adapting your office include:

  • Removing or spreading our furniture to allow for more physical distancing
  • Checking the building’s ventilation system and making necessary improvements
  • Installing shields or other physical barriers where needed
  • Setting up sanitizing and personal protective equipment (PPE) stations
  • Conducting a thorough cleaning and sanitization of your office building, and scheduling regular cleanings moving forward
  • Posting signage to remind team members about new regulations and safety measures

Building a return to the office planning committee

Developing a return to office plan can have its challenges. That’s why it should not be the sole responsibility of an HR manager. To ensure employees' safe returns, it's crucial to build a multidisciplinary committee that plans and governs all the return to office guidelines. The planning committee may include people from key departments like:

  • Legal
  • HR
  • Health and safety
  • IT
  • Operations

Along with these people, ensure to take guidance from different public health professionals. Your planning committee should have a general employee representative responsible for communicating employee's concerns and questions. 

From deciding whether the workspace requires modification for social distancing to implementing staggered shifts for controlling the crowd, the committee should build, govern, and update the guidelines. The committee should also monitor any potential issues that may arise after employees return to the office.

Educating teams on new return to office protocols

There’s a lot to consider when asking employees to get back to the office. Returning is only one part of the equation. However, establishing and communicating new office protocols are an essential element of the process.

As you kick off your return to work planning, be sure there is a process in place to educate your team on any changes, procedures, and updates they’ll encounter when they return. This can be accomplished through:

Developing training material

To alleviate apprehension and anxiety, address the in-office changes like social distancing, office layout changes, social customs (sharing food, shaking hands, birthday celebrations, etc.) by developing training material.

The training material should include clear directives for collaboration, gathering, and educating the employees on the potential dos and don’ts when returning to the office.

Establishing communication protocols

For a frictionless and smooth transition back into the in-office work environment, your team requires peace of mind that comes with a well-communicated re-entry.

It’s essential to establish communication protocols, especially if you’re planning to embrace a hybrid team culture. In such a phased reopening, you need to create and nurture a communication culture. This ensures that every employee, whether remote workers or co-located, are on the same page. You can establish communication protocols by:

  • Defining communication tool etiquette
  • Defining the core working hours for hybrid team members
  • Communicating individual work hours to everyone in the team
  • Advertising leave on public calendars accessible to everyone in the team
  • Creating a policy on out-of-office hours
  • Setting punctuality standards
  • Creating digital spaces for non-work-related conversations

What safety guidelines should you consider for your return to office plans?

To plan for the safest return to the office, you should follow any safety guidelines that have been released by your state or country.

The recommendations vary by area, but here are some helpful resources:

Don’t see your own country’s guidance on the above list? A simple Google search should bring up the recommendations for your area. 

How to support staff members returning to the office

During uncertain times, the quote “people always remember how you make them feel” holds true. Your employees should feel like they’re being welcomed back and that you value their return to the office.

Therefore, boost the happiness and show support to your employees by:

  • Creating flexible work policies: Parents who have been juggling between remote working and child care may find it hard to return to the office. For such parents, provide flextime. This may include shift work, a compressed work week, teleworking or the freedom to change work hours when needed. 
  • Offering mental and emotional support: When heading back to the office, employees may show signs of distress and anxiety — whether they’re concerned about their own health and safety while at the office or have other social concerns. To support them, consider health and wellness initiatives that promote positive work-life balance, safe team bonding experiences, and stress reduction. Communicating safety plans can also be a helpful way to alleviate return to office jitters.
  • Introducing employee assistance program (EAP): If an employee is struggling with their return to office transition, adopt a flexible and understanding approach when resolving personal and professional issues affecting their performance.

How to use Wrike to create a return to work plan

From office preparation tasks to documentation and resources, there’s a lot you need to organize for your team’s return to the office.

Wrike can help you keep track of everything and manage this project effectively. Start by creating a folder within Wrike titled “Return to Office” or something else that makes sense to you. Within this folder, you can create separate projects. For example:

  •       Project #1: Prepare the physical office building
  •       Project #2: Prepare the team

Now, within those projects, you can break things into different tasks (these are action items like “install transparent shields'' or “send an announcement email to the team”), assign people to different tasks, and track your progress. This means you won’t bring anyone back to the building until you’ve crossed your t’s and dotted your i’s. 

Using Wrike to plan a phased return to work

Now that you have that structure set up, you can also use Wrike to work out a phased return to the office — where you bring people back slowly, rather than all at once. 

You and your team members can use Wrike to collaborate, discuss, and decide on your criteria. Will you bring groups of people back alphabetically? Based on their job role or department? How will you decide when you’re ready to move to the next phase?

Those are all things you’ll need to agree on, and with email and chat integrations, Wrike makes it a lot easier to keep that communication centralized so all opinions are heard and considered.

Next, if you really want to plan things out carefully, you can create specific tasks within your “Return to Office” project for each phase and then assign the team members who will come back with that group. You can even build in task dependencies between phases. 

Let’s say you have a rule that you need to disinfect the office and receive another stock of PPE before you can move forward with bringing the next phase of employees back to the office. Setting up those task dependencies in Wrike means you can’t move to subsequent tasks until those preparations are completed. 

How to use Wrike for PPE inventory management

If you’re going to plan for a safe return to work, you need to ensure that you have the right supplies for everybody in the office. From masks and gloves to desk shields and dividers, returning to work will mean plenty of workplace modifications and supply necessities. 

Wrike has plenty of resource management features that will help you monitor, allocate, and maximize your materials and equipment. 

The last thing you want is for team members to show up to the office and not have access to the supplies they need to keep themselves safe. So, appropriately managing your resources is imperative. 

Get prepared for a safe return to the office, regardless of when it happens

Maybe you’re currently in the middle of creating a return to work plan. Or perhaps your team’s return is still quite a ways off in the future.

Regardless of where on the spectrum you fall, adequate preparation is key to making the transition from remote work to in-office collaboration as seamless as possible. 

Use this as your guide and you’ll head back to the office in a way that’s successful, streamlined, and safe.

Want to make your return to the workplace even easier? Wrike can help you plan it all out. Start your free trial now