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Reopening During a Pandemic Without Panic

Best Practices for Return to Office 

Jitin Agarwal

VP, Enterprise Products, EPAM
Blog
  • Remote By Design

The pandemic is back on the rise in the US, after slowly dropping the past few weeks. According to the best data available, the pandemic jump-and-plunge will likely continue until an effective therapy or vaccine is developed. The WHO reports that some of the smartest minds across the globe are working on more than 165 different medicines, hoping to develop a viable solution. However, between now and then—whenever that might be—organizations need to get on with business, and so they’re working through what a Return to Office (RTO) might look like. In looking at the way companies are adapting, it’s like Thomas Friedman says—there are two eras: BC (Before Corona) and AC (After Corona). It’s time to get your organization ready for the AC. Want to take a Remote By Design™ approach here? Consider some current best practices for RTO and you’ll be well on your way.

Be Holistic

Your organization should treat the RTO process as an end-to-end “journey.” A successful RTO is not based on a piecemeal approach and considers every step involved in the process, carefully.  

The first step begins before your employees leave the house, with a self-health check. There are several good health self-check resources available – from Apple, Google, EPAM and the Mayo Clinic. This step is crucial to ensure those with COVID-19 don’t spread it to others at work.

Second step: Ensuring good access control when employees arrive. It’s important to have external corporate validation that individuals are not endangering themselves or their colleagues in their haste to return to the office. Good examples of access control guidelines are available from both OSHA and the CDC.

A third step is to consider the at-work experience for employees. Helping them feel safe and secure, while at work, will allow everyone to be more productive. Managing communal spaces, such as conference rooms, elevators, cafeterias, break and snack rooms, is critical to normalized operations for an RTO. The previously mentioned guides from OSHA and CDC provide valuable guidance on the right way to manage communal corporate spaces for an office return.

The final step involves the complexities of commuting. Unfortunately, other than offering guidance and perhaps PPE, there isn’t a lot an organization can do to protect its employees while they travel back and forth from work, even if they drive their own cars. The best an organization can do is suggest cautionary practices and help employees take the best approach possible for a safe commute to and from work. 

Fight FUD

Information overload is a major communication challenge here. Given the nature of the pandemic, where things are constantly in a state of flux—changing weekly and sometimes daily—people can’t keep up. Add to that the multiple sources of information and misinformation, and it’s easy to understand the difficulty people face assimilating all of this information. This creates FUD, or Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. Successfully fighting FUD can be a tremendous communications obstacle.

A successful RTO requires Fighting FUD with a constant and consistent communication plan. The best practice approach to communications covers social behaviors such as social distancing and good hygiene as they relate to the office. It’s vital that colleagues are successfully aware of the need to maintain appropriate distances and practice good cleanliness habits.

Organizations must also manage communication around contact tracing and the flood of information for their employees. The value of contact tracing comes into focus when they need a mechanism to inform employees if someone falls ill, based on their proximity to that individual. There are a number of resources for contact tracing, including this explanation from Wired for how mobile contact tracing can work and the open source solution from EPAM that enables this capability.

Communication needs to be regular, constant and multi-faceted. Why? Humans learn in different ways and at different speeds, so a smart organization will employ various communication strategies and tools to reach all their people. What’s needed is a deft communications touch; if your org doesn’t have it, it will have to acquire it. And fast. 

Be Transparent

A good RTO strategy requires an organization to practice information transparency. This means having a free flow of information throughout the organization. Creating a pandemic RTO committee to manage this function is another best practice. The intent of this information transparency is to maximize the amount of relevant information shared with teams on the ground, working through the RTO process. These teams can’t operate without critical information, whether about the virus, corporate conditions, market restrictions or market responses. Whether it is the latest information from Johns Hopkins about the spread of the pandemic or broad and transparent access to corporate information via adaptive enterprise tools like TelescopeAI™. Regardless of the type of information you’re dealing with, withholding it may result in great damage to RTO plans. Therefore, deeply transparent approach is a best practice and a key factor in organizations successfully returning to work. 

Phase In

Your RTO must be properly staged. This means your organization should not attempt a “big bang” approach to re-opening their business enterprise-wide. The shock of such an approach, not to mention the stresses associated with managing all of its moving parts, will likely lead to failure. A successful RTO strategy calls for deployment in a phased model. Your RTO plan may base “phases” on geographies, business units, or other key organizational factors. Another model might look at risk levels for developing a phased return to office. This risk-based approach focuses on low-risk functions and people returning first, followed by medium-risk ones, followed last by high-risk ones. Both approaches bring a certain value, based on organizational preferences and requirements, which could vary from company to company.

A significant benefit of a phased approach is the ability to learn from phases over time, making each phase better in implementation and execution. Iteration gives your organization an opportunity to adapt its processes and procedures and take advantage of new information, tools, techniques and mechanisms to combat the pandemic. Ultimately, organizations that don’t use a phased approach will unnecessarily introduce risk into an already risky and complicated plan, thereby greatly increasing failure rates in their RTO. 

Monitor and Adjust

A final best practice for organizations to consider: Monitor and adjusting your approach based on the latest information and insights available in the market today.

To ensure your RTO plans are executed successfully, you’ll need a system of constant monitoring. This means acquiring and gathering information from the market through tools like InfoNgen®, or perhaps other industry or market tools. The most critical part of information acquisition is to gather not only the broadest set of information available, but also the “best” based on relevancy and applicability to the organization. Tools that gather lots of information, without the ability to narrow down what’s relevant to your organization may perhaps contribute to the FUD rather then help reduce it.

Fact is, merely gathering and disseminating information is not good enough to roll out a successful RTO plan. An organization may need to pivot to adapt changes in the market. Regularly. This means purposefully building in a dynamic adaptation loop into your RTO process and plans. The adjustment mechanism can be comprised of multiple factors, but the intent is to ensure your organization is nimble and agile, as noted here.

Organizations should consider these best practices as they embark on their own RTO journey. No two journeys will be alike, but all of them have the same destination, a safe and effective return to the next normal. Here’s seeing you on the other side of AC! 

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