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As businesses begin to reopen their physical offices, employers have been wrestling with evolving state and local COVID-19 mandates as well as implementing their own health and safety protocols. Each organization has its own culture and business drivers, so returning to the workplace isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” scenario.

Whether you’ve been working from home (WFH), reduced to part-time, laid-off, or lost employment during the pandemic, it is critical to be prepared for the return to the physical office space.

When writing my first book, I used an award-winning eight-question format that sparks thought-provoking concepts. Consider this question: If you were in your employer’s position, what would you think are the long-term implications of the pandemic in the workplace? How does the day-to-day office experience change? How is employee morale kept high in a post-COVID context?

Here are 8 questions to consider before returning back to the office after COVID:

  1. What are the health and safety protocols in place? Initiating a discussion about what the organization is doing to reduce employee risk and exposure to Covid-19 and the variants is an excellent approach. If the organization sent an email, use it as a stepping stone. Are there new rules for shared spaces, such as bathrooms, cafes, hallways, kitchens, meeting areas, or terraces?
    *PRO TIP: Ask what efforts have been made to ensure the health and safety of workers. What procedures are in place if someone becomes sick or has been exposed to someone sick at work. Make sure you understand the specific reporting requirements.
  2. What’s the organizational culture change? Since there is no going “back to normal” or to “pre-pandemic times,” how is the organization looking at the future? How will meeting and office spaces change? What will socialization look like during the workday?
    * PRO TIP: The pandemic presents opportunities for cultural shifts that may be revealed by active listening during virtual meetings and careful reading of reports, social media, and other communication avenues.
  3. What are the business needs? Does your work require you to collaborate in person or work interdependently? Can you work face-to-face as a team a few days a week to accomplish critical business functions? What do business needs require?
    *PRO TIP: Be transparent about your duties and responsibilities and prioritize teamwork over personal preference, pet separation anxiety, and commute time.
  4. Do you need a digital update? Have you updated your critical skills and competencies during the pandemic? Improved your language skills? Employers aren’t just interested in filling critical roles anymore. The trend has been to find talent with critical skills.
      1. •Have you enrolled in a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training course?
      1. •Are you up to speed with today’s digital technology?
      1. •Have you completed any new certifications?
                 •What language are you studying or advancing?
  5. How is health safety structured in the office? We have all read about positivity rates; that is, the percentage of people who test positive out of all those tested. How does your office measure air quality sensor data such as carbon dioxide and particulates? It’s important to note that there isn’t an agreed upon standard for whether an airplane, office building, cruise ship, or educational facility is “healthy.” However, many people expect owners, landlords, and others to post Health Performance Indicators (HPIs). Be prepared for the potential collection, monitoring, and sharing of this information at your office building, or workplace.
    *PRO TIP: Purchase a contactless thermometer and take your temperature at home prior to departure, and again after you cycle or walk to work. Remember to cool down before entering the office; your temperature may be monitored.
    * PRO TIP: Ask about new company policies regarding cleaning and sanitization of work stations, meeting rooms, sick leave, and company travel.
  6. How transparent is your organization with its plans? Has the executive team or C-Suite been truthful about the company’s needs and how they have evolved during work from home (WFH), or are they offering platitudes? Is the company doing better or worse than pre-WFH? Could more layoffs be looming in the future, or is the company on the brink of hiring? If there are warning signs, what steps have you taken for Plan B in your career?
  7. Is there a Flexible Hybrid Approach? Organizations vary in needs. While working from anywhere allows for geographical flexibility, it may limit employer business prospects. Be prepared for remote arrangements that are structured; these allow teams to meet weekly or at designated times for decision making, knowledge transfer, and communication. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that employers offer remote work for roles that can be performed virtually. Does your organization provide this opportunity? Have you been proactive in discussing this with your supervisor?
  8. Has your organization acknowledged any workplace changes? Do you and your current or potential employer understand the universal changes and those predicted for the future? Have they communicated via email or perhaps announced a training or all-hands online meeting? A partial list includes:
      1. •Increased remote and virtual work
      1. •Permanent reduction in business travel
      1. •Accelerated use of digital technology
      1. •Enhanced health and safety measures
      1. •Greater demand for worker critical skills
      1. •Broader caregiving benefits for workers and families

Organizations will have managers with varying opinions both – positive and negative – about work from home, virtual meetings, and deciding who works remotely. The culture change is less about where we work; it’s truly about how we work and how that work is managed. The change has been profound, whether managers want to acknowledge this or bury their proverbial heads in the sand.

We are going to observe organizations and workers that handle the ambiguity of returning to the office or the workplace like pros. Many will embrace the opportunity and emerge unscathed. Then there will be others who struggle and have difficulty with flexibility. My advice is to be proactive, explore options, and absorb information both virtually and literally. Success is close at hand.

Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., is a diversity and inclusion consultant, cross-cultural trainer, etiquette expert, and the founder of Access to Culture. In addition to her accreditation in intercultural management from the HOFSTEDE Centre, she is an attorney and mediator. Her Amazon #1 Best Selling book in International Business, Access to Asia, won a coveted Kirkus Star, and was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books. She is a winner of numerous awards, including the British Airways International Trade Award at the Greater Austin Business Awards.

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