5 questions employees are asking about returning to the office


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There’s so much about this year that we never anticipated. All the canceled plans and festivities. Upended vacations. The endless days at home. In fact, if you can say one thing for certain about 2020, it’s that it’s been a year of uncertainty. And for many workers, this uncertainty drags on.

Before COVID-19, workday routines were fairly constant. For the vast majority of employees, work meant commuting into the office; only a meager 7% of American workers were allowed to telework. When the pandemic forced the need for lockdowns in March, millions worked from home. 

Mandated lockdowns may have eased, but the risk of COVID-19 hasn’t. For many workers, this interim reality has brought new uncertainties as companies try to determine whether a return to the office is feasible.

Fears over returning to work have created a huge amount of stress in the workforce. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Workplace Trust and the Coronavirus, only half of employees believe their office is safe. The multinational survey also found little consensus on who should take the lead on return-to-work decision-making and no agreement on essential protective measures.

One thing employees are saying with certainty? Working from home is going well. Three-quarters of employees in Edelman’s survey feel confident working remotely won’t harm their careers, and many other polls of both employers and employees have found that these months of remote work have been a boon for productivity.

Wanted: Greater clarity

With the coronavirus heading into a second wave, employees are reasonably hesitant to resume normal activities—and that includes coming into the office. Meanwhile, they’re looking to their employers to keep them in the loop. Nearly two-thirds of those polled by Edelman said they would like their company to share information about the coronavirus on a daily basis, if not even more frequently.

Some organizations, including Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft, have already made remote work a permanent option for employees. Others have clarified that work-from-home policies will be in place until at least mid-2021. But with as many as 67% of companies planning to continue to allow WFH, even after coronavirus, there is much more clarity needed and much hanging in the balance. 

A lack of clear information about what the future may hold is holding employees back, standing in the way of important personal decisions around everything from childcare to where to live. Poor transparency also has implications for businesses (and for post-COVID-19 recovery) because it erodes employee trust and engagement, with a rolling impact on things like collaboration and commitment to the company. 

There’s a lot that employees want to know, and illuminating these issues can go a long way towards strengthening their trust and engagement. Here are five key questions workers are asking.

1. When will the office reopen?

It’s difficult to fall asleep at night when you don’t know what tomorrow may bring—and not knowing when you’ll have to go back into the office is one of the top uncertainties many are facing. Keeping employees in the loop about reopening decisions— in the absence of a clear answer, decision-making frameworks, and metrics—can help employees better plan for what comes next and give them time to adjust to the “next normal.”

2. Can we continue working from home?

With 55% of businesses planning to allow employees to work remotely at least one day per week, the return to the office will not be all or nothing for most people. Workers also overwhelmingly want more flexibility in their working arrangements, with 83% expressing a desire to WFH at least once a week.

If your organization plans to continue to allow more flexible arrangements, communicating such intentions (even if plans are still in the works) can assure employees that the company is listening to their needs.

3. What’s the company’s plan to keep us safe?

The coronavirus has uniquely and critically undermined employees’ confidence in the workplace because fears of the virus are quite literally life or death. Whether it’s a concern for their own safety or that of a vulnerable loved one, half of Americans say health concerns have them worried about going back to the office. From screening protocols to social distancing and masking policies, workplaces need a proactive plan to reduce the risk of virus transmission between employees. 

4. What happens if I or my family get sick?

The highly contagious nature of COVID-19 makes it a real risk that any employee—or family member—could become infected. 

Communicating clear policies and procedures is critical for reducing the risk of transmissions due to an infected or exposed employee coming into work, and for ensuring employee needs are met during an illness.

5. How is the company monitoring the health of every employee?

COVID-19 has turned people’s private and personal healthcare matters into a public issue due to the risk of interpersonal transmission. Employees may have concerns on two fronts: they may be worried about the risk of infection from coworkers, and they may also be worried about having to reveal personal information about their health. Transparent monitoring procedures let workers know what to expect on both fronts.

Work in a time of uncertainty

Clear information plays a critical role in maintaining the health and safety of the workforce during these times of upheaval. But as recent months have shown, it’s difficult to predict what will happen next—and with rapidly changing attitudes about remote work, it’s clear that even when offices do reopen, work as we know it will not be the same. 

Whether for sick days or quarantine, or to enable the flexible and remote working arrangements that are expected to prevail moving forward, employers need to plan for and communicate new protocols that will meet the needs of the workforce. 

This includes giving workers the tools they need to confidently do their jobs anywhere. Unified communications like RingCentral are critical to this imperative, giving workers all the communication and collaboration tools they need to seamlessly and efficiently do their jobs, both as businesses reopen and beyond.

Originally published Oct 15, 2020

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