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8 tips for welcoming employees back to the office

Employees who have become used to working from home may have mixed feelings about coming back to the office. That's why welcoming them back in the right way is so important.

As more business and HR leaders consider return-to-office plans, one aspect of those plans should be top of mind: employee experience.

Although many organizations have postponed their plans to reopen the office, strategic discussions are in full swing. Welcoming employees back into the workplace in the right way is critical for employee experience. It's particularly important as organizations strive to retain their employees as turnover increases and hiring becomes more competitive.

Putting it into perspective

Employees have dealt with a pandemic -- they may have contracted COVID-19 or had relatives or friends get sick. Many coped -- and may still be coping -- with stressful home environments, taking on caregiving roles for relatives or becoming part-time teachers for their children participating in virtual learning.

Many workers have mixed feelings about the transition, and some would rather continue remote work for good. Prioritizing employee wellbeing and listening to what employees want from their return-to-office experience can help move the balance to the positive.

Here are some tips for HR and business leaders to consider while creating a return-to-office plan.

  1. If your company has multiple locations, remember that this is not a one-size-fits-all situation. Some areas in the U.S. might have more stringent or more relaxed measures in place based on the current number of cases in the town or state. Just because one branch of the company feels comfortable fully opening and welcoming back workers doesn't mean every other company location can, too. Consider a customized return plan for each area and avoid sweeping statements such as "Now that we are back in the office …."
  2. Make health supplies available to everyone. Offer hand sanitizer and share with employees how the company is continuing to stay vigilant about COVID-19 prevention -- for example, instituting more frequent office cleanings. COVID-19 guidance changes frequently. Even if local guidance aligns with reopening the office, workers will still want to know what the company is doing to keep them safe.
  3. If there is a specific day when many employees will be returning for the first time, consider leaving gift cards on employees' desks or providing a similar treat to lift spirits. Remember that providing a cheerful office experience and being sensitive to out-of-office difficult realities can be tricky.
  4. If many employees are returning on the same day, consider recommending a meeting- and deadline-free morning. Give employees time to get settled and catch up with one another. Easing in will likely make the day less chaotic.
  5. Remind employees that being in the office can have its advantages. Supervisors could encourage their subordinates to get lunch together the first few days back and encourage a certain amount of off-topic office chat.
  6. Ask employees what has been working well. For example, do employees value flexible Fridays or a Thursday morning catch-up meeting? Consider continuing these practices once work goes hybrid or fully in-person.
  7. Schedule lunch-and-learns or seminars based on employee feedback. Are employees concerned about the pandemic's effect on their 401(k)? Bring in a financial advisor to do a lunchtime session. Maybe workers feel like they're out of practice with their soft skills after working alone for so long. Have a communications trainer run a refresher course.
  8. The most crucial action is to listen to employees. Send out an employee survey, not just about preferred working arrangements but about broader issues such as how the organization can best support them. In this time of high turnover, workers could decide to go elsewhere if they don't feel heard by their employer.

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