All aboard: How to navigate the re-onboarding process after COVID-19
Picture this. The ominous veil of COVID-19 has partly lifted. The imminent threat has subsided and we are now allowed to enter society as the humble citizens we once were. We may still need to stand 1.5m away from another human, but businesses are starting to re-open and we can return to our workplaces.
We set out on our commute to work, just like we used to in what seems like another lifetime now, only our auto-pilot switch is no longer engaged. The route that felt like second nature is now hauntingly unfamiliar and you can just tell that everyone else feels the same way.
You arrive at the office. Everyone is buzzing with excitement, like children on their first day of school, ready to interact with people and make friends. Anika from Accounts is proudly detailing her home improvement journey while in isolation. Victor from Sales is staunchly divulging his virus near miss (it really wasn’t at all, but it’s great to see that you’re okay Victor), and Henry from operations is sporting a flowing mane of hair that even Fabio would be envious of.
Half an hour or so passes, the noises die down and people return to their desks.
You open your emails, a few ping in and you whoosh a few out… Hmm now what? You rearrange your desk a little bit to help you settle in… oh yes, much better. That will get your productivity levels soaring.
You sit for a little longer and notice that you have some fluff on your pants. Ah, best get that off, yes, very important, can’t be looking like a mess on your first day back.
You look around, expecting to see everyone with their heads down, getting stuck into their long ‘to do’ lists, but instead, you see a room full of faces, mirroring the feelings you’re having too. Everyone seems to be… lost.
Why? You know how to do your job, everyone should just be able to pick things up where they left off, right? I mean, it’s not as though you haven’t been working this whole time, you’ve just been in a different environment for a few months.
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. A lot has changed during the pandemic. Just like when we had to get used to the transition to remote work, we will also have to go the other way at some point and re-onboard our workforce.
Yes, it may seem a little while away now, but as we all know, things can change in the blink of an eye. When it does, we have to understand how to navigate the re-onboarding process.
A goal without a plan is just a wish
This situation is very unusual, so drawing on previous experience in this scenario is probably not possible. But that’s okay, think about it this way.
What do we know about onboarding new employees and transitioning existing employees back to work following an absence like parental leave, annual leave or illness? We know that a plan is essential. Imagine trying to construct a building without any plans drawn up, just wildly mixing up concrete, slathering it here, there and everywhere amidst a forest of steel beams. It just wouldn’t work.
This is the same in the post-COVID-19 re-onboarding process. Organisations need to have a well thought out plan to support their employees in successfully transitioning from the home office, back to the centralised workplace. How will you support your employees as they acclimatise? What tools, resources and assistance will employees require as they make this next change in the way we work?
All aboard! Get your re-onboarding plan leaving the station
Here are a few tips to help get your mass re-onboarding process underway:
Don’t wait for day one
Start talking to your people about returning to the centralised workplace now. Yes, you may feel like you’ve got plenty of time, but if you start mentally preparing your employees now, the idea of being back amongst other humans will not be such a shock to the system on day one.
Have a plan
When new hires come to work on their first day, you don’t just show them their desk and send them on their merry way to figure it all out solo, no. Generally, they are given a plan that appreciates the time it takes to settle into a new role and acquaint themselves with the organisation. In the same way, this situation requires a transparent plan that is clearly demonstrated to employees.
Mark the occasion
When a new employee commences with an organisation or returns from extended leave, there is usually a formal welcome. It could be in the form of a lunch or a morning tea, an acknowledgement in a team meeting or maybe it is a pogo-stick tour around the office building. I mean, that one’s a bit wild, but whatever your style is, it’s always a great idea to formally acknowledge someone when they join or return to an organisation. This also goes for the mass re-onboarding. Though, obviously take into consideration the social distancing requirements that will more than likely remain for some time. So, no trust falls or anything like that.
Avoid making assumptions
Although COVID-19 has been a shared experience, each person’s personal experience of COVID-19 has varied greatly. For some employees, this time of social distancing has been a positive experience, where they have had more time to spend with family or start a new project. For other employees, this has been a deeply traumatic experience. Appreciating and recognising the divergent experiences of employees will be very important when returning to the workplace.
Transitioning from only seeing a few humans to being surrounded by hordes of people for 8 hours a day will be quite a significant change. Be proactive and communicate about how the health and safety of employees will be managed now that interactions are face-to-face. The fear of contracting an illness from other people is firmly entrenched in our minds and addressing this safety concern of employees will be important.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
One of the upsides of our current predicament has been an increase in internal communication. More effort has been exerted in communicating with employees, due in part because of the evolving nature of the situation and the physical remoteness. This increase in communication needs to continue, even when we are back working together in our offices. We would never consider hacking the training wheels off a child’s bike mid-ride now, would we?
Revisit your purpose and strategy
Make time to revisit your purpose and strategy – and explain any changes that may have happened in terms of business priorities. By talking about these elements of your culture you will remind employees of the ‘why’ and the ‘what’.
This has been a monumental experience with the potential for significant learning and growth – for individuals and organisations. Ensure time is built in to pause and reflect. Consider what we have learnt from this experience, what aspects of the new ways of working should be continued and what aspects should be discontinued. Wise leaders will seek to unearth and embed these lessons into how business is managed in the future.
Go forth, you’ve got this
For leaders and employees alike, the day we return to the workplace will be overwhelmingly exciting and daunting all at the same time. The return will more than likely be gradual and phased, but the time will be upon us earlier than you think. Start planning for it now, because the last thing you want is for your organisation to be left on the back foot. Consider the tips above and make adjustments as you need. Stay safe, and good luck!