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It has been a year and a few months since the coronavirus turned a new page in world history and exploded all comfort zones. Since that time, Estonia has beaten back two waves of the virus, and like last spring, we are now facing a calmer period. But this brings up new questions – how to return little by little to ordinary working life and juggle the needs of companies and employees while taking into account the way work will be organized in future.
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Many companies weren’t able to let their employees work remotely because of their area of activity. In companies that were able to permit remote work, approaches varied greatly, from closing their physical office completely and sending people home, while others did not allow remote work and things continued as before. Many approached the situation flexibly, leaving it up to the employee to decide whether they worked in the office, scheduling in-office work in shifts. The decisions made by companies had different reasons. For example, they might have been made at the global level or based on the company CEO’s own habits and views.

But coming back to the current situation, companies have their share of challenges. One example is how to meet the expectations of different interest groups in regard to working, going forward. I think every team has some people who are cautious and don’t want to put themselves and their loved ones at risk of the virus. There are also those who have already recovered from the virus, have been vaccinated or have a lower perceived sense of danger. There are also plenty of those who have discovered the positive sides of distance working and want to practice it in future as well. Yet for others, remote work isn’t suitable at all, and they will work from home in case of extreme need. The company’s needs as regards organization of work in the longer term must also be taken into consideration.

Start by determining what employees prefer

At Grant Thornton Baltic, we conducted a number of surveys among employees during both waves of the virus. On one hand, the goal was to measure the current “temperature” and the positives and negatives related to remote working. On the other hand, our questions also contained a future perspective that we can use to evaluate and track changes in employees’ opinions when it comes to working in the post-virus period. In future, a majority of employees (approx. 85%) said they prefer to continue working in the office or a hybrid arrangement where they work in the office and at a distance, as needed. Only 15% see themselves preferring to work only from home.

The results should certainly be interpreted in light of the company’s previous practice and culture. Although we allowed remote work even before the pandemic, the future role of home offices will certainly be greater than it was before the pandemic. This is also reflected in recruitment of candidates. At job interviews, nearly every other candidate asks what the company’s policy is toward remote work and often a potential new hire wants to know if there is a possibility of working remotely from time to time. Work-life balance has become very important.

Let’s come back to the people who would prefer to work in an office and/or want to return to their office as soon as possible. There may be various reasons for this: the desire to keep work and private life strictly apart, lack of suitable conditions for working at home (too little space, family members are there at the same time, etc.), loss of work-life balance due to the pandemic.

Three recommendations for further action

First of all, I recommend mapping out the current situation, involving both employees and the management in the process. It is also worth asking different parties for their thoughts in connection with returning to the office. That gives an opportunity to see the risk factors related to working in the office through the eyes of the employees. It also clarifies the concerns related to remote work, and areas where employees would have wanted support from their employer. For example, a study conducted this spring revealed that over one-half of employees see the biggest risk as being too many people working in the office – they are worried about catching the illness from a co-worker. This risk is considered high or very high by 52% of employees. Employees consider it important that the office not be overcrowded and that the rules on distancing be followed.

Secondly, I recommend the company’s management to decide whether and to what degree the flexible remote work policies will remain in place while the virus is at a low level and after the virus goes away for good. Flexibility means above all the work location, but it can also be working time. Besides employees’ needs, it is no less important to evaluate the company’s needs and preferences. Does the company want employees to work more at the office or at home, to what extent are they prepared to invest into remote workplaces (desk, monitor, chair, etc.) whether people working remotely will retain a permanent workstation at the office or whether hotdesking areas will take shape. Once the answers to these questions are known, the rest of the activities can be planned. It is also important to communicate these messages to employees as clearly as possible.

The third and probably most complicated questions relate to the company’s general
organization of work, especially if hybrid work arrangements remain in use. Here it’s worth analysing the existing processes, routines and practices and think about updating them. For example, which processes it would be wise to digitalize, what will the future meeting culture be, how to ensure movement of information and so on. The employees performing remote work should not be forgotten and their work safety, measurement of work efficiency and retention of a team bond should still be kept in the focus.

In addition, look at the office’s risk analysis and, on that basis, develop
various measures to make office working safe even when there are more people in the office.

Since alternating between home and office work has been a years-long practice at Grant Thornton Baltic, we consider it important to ensure availability of information about office occupancy. In other words, the number of people working in the office would be available to employees and on that basis, they can decide whether to come in to work on a given day or not. We have found a digital solution for this – employees mark themselves as planning to work in the office via the HR software program. Co-workers can see the information in the general calendar and see how many people want to come in to work on a given day. In addition, I recommend putting together rules for use of meeting rooms, rest areas and other common spaces to ensure sufficient distancing. Soap, sanitizer and masks are still key elements in setting up a safe work environment. Rapid tests for COVID-19 have also come to the market, and are being used in several companies.

In closing, don’t forget supporting employees on mental health topics. Returning to the office after a long stint working at home can also be complicated. The results of our own study showed that the following factors predominated:

  • Over 50% of employees believe that there has been a significant decline in team spirit. It takes time to get used to virtual events and they are not embraced, etc.
  • Employees are tired. For many, remote work was essential in connection with school closings or fear of virus. As a result, more than half of the people work more in the evenings or weekends are constantly on a work wavelength. The intensity of the work has also increased.

Employers can support employees in several ways. For example, employees can be allowed to take part in lectures and seminars, organizing practical workshops with various exercises. They can be offered sessions with a psychologist and therapist or health insurance so that the employee can use the necessary services. It is increasingly important to add self-management and self-support tools to the toolbox so that people could find it easier to cope in a turbulent world.

Finally, if the situation finally allows, it is worth investing in get-togethers, celebrations, summer picnics. Doing things together help re-break the ice between employees returning to work. The situation over the past year has led people into a different kind of comfort zone, and leaving it can cause fear. When they are again together with co-workers, many once again feel the pleasant emotion they felt when spending time together, drinking coffee in the morning or having lunch.

A company’s biggest asset is (happy) people! Welcome back to the office, and stay safe!