8 Strategies to Prepare for the Return to Work

June 15, 2021 Aaron Kinne

As we emerge from the grip of the pandemic, what does the future of work look like? How have people strategies evolved or adapted? And what should be the key focus areas for organizations in the coming year?

With those questions, moderator Lynette Silva Heelan, principal consultant at Workhuman®, launched an engaging and lively discussion during the recent webinar, “Back to Work: What Employers Need to Focus on to Thrive.”

Lynette was joined by ADP’s Bob Lockett, chief diversity and talent officer, and Martha Bird, chief business anthropologist, Ph.D., along with Jesse Harriott, global head of analytics at Workhuman. 

The panel of experts explored:

  • What workplace programs and practices will help organizations emerge even stronger
  • What will be required to keep employees happy and ensure a thriving business in the midst of today’s changes
  • Ways to maintain productivity and a sense of belonging in hybrid work environments

Lessons and takeaways from the pandemic

For Bob, three key lessons of the past year center around flexibility, resilience, and accepting “the fact that not everything is going to be perfect.” 

“I think there was a perception before that we want it to be perfect in everything we did – the interactions, the meetings,” he noted. Now, people are “having conversations from their bedroom or ironing board – from wherever they can to ensure they continue to serve their clients and do the work that needs to get done.”

He also cited the “often overlooked” concern about mental health and mental wellness: “We spend a lot of time on Zoom and on calls, and we’ve forgotten about the importance of human interaction.”

For Martha, the pandemic has revised our notion of what an office is. “An office is much more about space,” she observed. “It’s about the relationality of people, objects, symbols in space. It’s a dynamic, very fluid, meaningful place for creating relationships or having exchanges.” She believes that while facilities were seen as “cost centers” in the past, “we are coming into an era where they will become value centers.”

“90% of communication is non-verbal,” added Jesse, echoing those same thoughts. “And we miss a lot of those cues when we’re on Zoom and not physically together.”

He shared Bob’s concern about the mental health of workers during the pandemic. “We did research and found that 71% of workers said the pandemic has had an impact on their mental health. They report feeling isolated, overwhelmed, and less motivated.” The antidote? “We have also found that [those feelings] can be moderated when people feel a sense of appreciation from a colleague.”

A Year into COVID. | Read the Report
Read how employees are feeling one year into working during the COVID-19 Pandemic

A shift in leadership styles

Lynette then asked the panel to share some of the key learnings they’ve taken away during the past year – including the bigger picture surrounding connection, diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Martha cited the desire for “seamless experiences.” But the past 18 months has “caused people to realize life is not seamless. Life is actually messy. And it’s within that ‘messiness’ that our humanity comes through.” 

In her view, there are more leaders willing to be vulnerable, transparent, and honest about what they’re going through. She hopes this will lead to a permanent shift in leadership styles:

“’Command and control’ is becoming passé – to be replaced by things like empowerment and inspiration. You need to understand how to develop people in a way that is consistent with where they want to go.”

Research on the language used in recognition messages supports this view, according to Jesse: “We saw an increase in the tone of messages being more empathetic with words like ‘grateful,’ ‘dedication,’ ‘appreciation,’ ‘culture,’ ‘thankfulness.’” 

“People want leaders to be authentic,” he added. “They want to understand where they are – their role – and authenticity is a critical ingredient for that. One of the ways to reinforce those authentic human connections is through social recognition and empowering employees to lift one another up.”

Lynette noted that a recent ADP Research Institute study found 44% of employers now have official flexible working policies in place – up from only 24% pre-COVID. “The study also revealed that most workers, 65%, are upbeat. They’re happy about the flexibility of opportunities that they will have in the future,” she noted.

So what does this mean for companies navigating their priorities as we look ahead to the return to work?

“We crave human connection when we’re in the workplace,” noted Bob. “So organizations will have to be really thoughtful about how to implement a policy or practice in which we can say we have flexibility … Leaders are going to have to think about the needs of their associates in a very different context than they did before.”

As he sees it, the failure to be flexible will have repercussions: “If organizations don’t do this right, they’re going to lose talent because they’re going to find other organizations are creating flexible models that will allow them to be even more competitive.”

For Martha, the need to recognize the diversity and uniqueness of employees starts with the leader: “It’s not simply about being a strong leader – directing people to do this or that. It’s actually about being able to orchestrate a group of people with diverse abilities, skills, and different backgrounds.”

Remote work – its impact on productivity and wellness

How will the transition to a remote or hybrid model affect worker productivity, and – perhaps more important – overall worker wellness? “You’ve got to take time for yourself. Clear your head and come back with your best thinking,” said Bob. “I would rather have people give me their best thinking and effort, versus giving me 50% to 60%. We lost the art of being able to focus on tasks at hand because we’re too busy trying to multitask.”

Jesse agreed that the pandemic has “proven as a workforce we can get the mechanics of work done.” But he adds that we miss that human connection. “If [human connection] continues to lack in the environment, productivity will go down. It will be affected. We’ve seen some evidence of that in certain sectors.”

Working at home as a “privilege”

What about those employees who didn’t have the option to work remotely? How can people leaders help those who remained onsite?

“Being able to work at home is a privilege,” observed Martha. “And it’s not a privilege everyone shares … I hope the companies that those people work for are giving them the recognition they truly deserve. [Workhuman] is the perfect place to give them instruction on how to give recognition properly.” 

BP Global Recognition Platform Launch Story. | Read the Story
Read how BP launched their global recognition platform.

“I agree with the ‘privilege’ comment,” added Jesse. “And what we’ve seen through some of the research is that there can be greater stress levels for folks who have been onsite because they go into an empty office that’s usually full of life. It almost amplifies the struggle we’ve all been under.” 

The antidote? “We have seen a lot of our clients ‘double-down’ on recognition for the people who did have to go in – and have been going onsite through this entire pandemic … Recognition elevates their experience.”

Talent management in the new work model

Martha cited some of the challenges as we look ahead to the return to office. “How do you think through your talent management structure if being in the office has always been a good step for a promotion?” she asked. “Imagine it’s a hybrid situation and some people are remote and some are co-located? Does that create a fair playing ground for people to be evaluated in terms of promotion?”

She also contended that having people in the office just to be “present” can have a negative impact on employee engagement. “’Presenteeism’ is a real buzzkill,” she said.

Noting that organizational goals shifted dramatically once the pandemic erupted, Lynette asked about the need for agility in the workplace. “We’re used to hearing business processes need to be agile,” she noted. “So how does all this come to life in people practices?”

For Bob, it’s about adjusting “to the needs of the workforce as well as the needs of the business.” He cited the shift to remote hiring, onboarding, and leadership development. In the end, it comes down a single core element: “How do I make sure I have the human connection that is so needed?”

Creating a high-trust culture

What’s most important moving forward is building trust, and leaders are key here.

“I think the standard for a leader is going to be much higher on the human-centric dimensions,” observed Martha. “Being empathetic, being able to be vulnerable, being willing to say that you’ve made mistakes. And being informed about differences – and then embracing and inviting it – are all incredibly important skills.”

“It’s up to the leader to create the right conditions for success,” added Bob. “This is all about the climate or culture that you create for your organization or team. How do we take care of their well-being? How do we show empathy? As a leader, you have to have credibility in order to build trust.”

Looking to the future

Lynette concluded by asking the panelists to share what excites and inspires them as they look ahead. 

For Jesse, it’s about seeing people more open and willing to embrace their vulnerability:

“Opening yourself up through vulnerability creates human connection. The ability for people to be thankful for one another – and for the workplace to be a more authentic place where you can be your more human self – that’s what I’m most excited about.”

Martha looks forward to the “inevitable future” in which companies will “stand up for social justice, environmental protection,” and other progressive changes. She believes these are the companies – “the ones that do the most for the most people” – that will thrive in the market.

And for Bob, it’s the knowledge that we can make a difference in the world – particularly in the workplace: “I think you’ll see a shift in the expectation of an organization. People now are saying, ‘I want to be part of an organization that not only does great work, but also has meaning in a bigger context.”  

About the Author

Aaron Kinne

Aaron Kinne is a senior writer at Workhuman.