More Difficult to Return to the Office than to Leave

May 29, 2020

COVID-19 Roundtable Discussions

This summary covers two recent iterations of Executive Networks’ COVID-19 virtual roundtable series. More than 40 members joined the roundtables to share some of the pressing strategic and operational challenges surfacing at this stage of the crisis. On May 21, Michael Papay, CEO and co-founder of Waggl, joined for the first part of the call to discuss listening to employees during the crisis. Thank you to the members who participated in these virtual roundtable discussions. This document summarizes calls from May 21st and May 28th. Some approaches discussed may have since changed.

More Difficult to Return to the Office than to Leave

  • Snapshot from an open office: One member based in Italy shared details of his company’s first phase of return-to-office, which has been ongoing for two weeks (as of May 28). The multi-building office campus normally houses over 7,000 employees, but just 10% have returned in the initial phase. Every entrance to each building is equipped with a body temperature scanner. People have to sign into the system every time they enter a building. Hand sanitizer pump bottles have been placed next to all common printers and elevators and at other sites throughout the buildings. The canteen has social distancing rules in effect that have caused long waits—even with just a fraction of the office working. Masks are required indoors, with mask and plastic bag dispensers displayed in clearly marked locations.
  • Few complaints: The same member shared that those co-workers who have returned amid the first wave (including him) are expressing gratitude for both the safety measures that have been enacted as well as the ability to once again work from their own office spaces. “It’s not the same, but there is a feeling that we are moving in the right direction,” he said.

Flexibility is Key

  • Offering choices on when to return: The member consensus is that companies are being patient and flexible with office workers who can effectively do their jobs from home. No member company is bringing office workers back “all at once,” instead giving employees latitude to decide when they feel safe to return and have their home needs met. However, concerns remain about how blended home and office teams will function as some workers begin returning to the office.
  • Flexible working arrangements turning permanent: Two members who had flexible working programs in place prior to the pandemic are making plans to vastly expand them. One estimated that she expects the percentage of total employees in permanent flexible working arrangements to triple to more 60%. “We’re moving slowly because there is a big difference between people volunteering for remote work and people being told ‘this is a remote job, do you want it or not?,’” she explained. “I think we have to be very careful about this. There are people who love working from home and there are people who hate it.”
  • Announcements made: No member company on the calls had gone as far as some American tech companies who have already said they will be nearly fully remote in the future. However, one member company has announced that they are moving to a “remote model,” with messaging around the decision focused on flexibility, cost savings, wellbeing and emission reductions. The company has staffed up six working groups to address the change: One is tasked with deciding who will be eligible for remote working. The others are focused on digital tools, onsite workspaces/infrastructure, regulations (off-site and on-site), social partners/engagement, and change management/training.

Training Leaders for a Flexible Workforce

  • Mindsets are changing, but not all of them: Two members shared that the unexpected effectiveness of their newly-virtual teams has “won over” some leaders who previously opposed flexible working arrangements, but two others reported that their leaders remain skeptical that such performance levels can be maintained longer-term. One member summed up the latter group’s thinking: “I think it is very risky to have people convert to fully remote. When you are just sitting at home in front of a computer, how can you know the company? How can you know the product?”
  • Remote leading guides: One member reported that her organization has assembled “cheat sheets” for leaders on how to lead remotely. Diversity and inclusion concerns led to the rapid creation of the documents: “We wanted to get out in front of this before we had people subconsciously using the quality of internet connections or equipment as factors in talent evaluations,” she said.
  • No easy solution for building and maintaining culture: One member said he attributes his company’s strong culture as critical to its quick transition to the virtual environment. Now, as new team members begin trickling onboard, he and other members are struggling with how to convey their company cultures in a remote setting.

Equipping Longer-term Remote Workers

  • Stipends for home office common, but not universal; questions remain: A number of member companies have been providing stipends for home offices, with many of them and others re-examining those policies as potential return-to-office dates stretch out further into the future. As one member put it, “We’re considering what happens when we start to go back, and people are at home part of the time and at work part of the time. We are also looking at opening up offices so people can get equipment and bring it home. How does all of this affect the stipend?” No clear answers emerged on the call.
  • Companies are paying less than they were pre-COVID: Two member companies with pre-existing flexible working policies said they have reduced their stipends out of necessity. One had offered $1000/employee for those who opted into flexible working arrangements prior to the pandemic, but reduced it to $250/person when the majority of employees were forced to work from home during the pandemic. Two others said they have recently ceased re-imbursements for home wi-fi.

Listening to Employees

  • Survey company CEO’s perspective: Michael Papay, CEO of Waggl, founded his company on the belief that the quicker leaders can get quality information from and to employees, the faster they can drive action. He calls the crisis a great opportunity for leaders to create an inclusive dialogue among all employees around the future. When the pandemic initially emerged, his clients’ use of the survey tool was “all about building trust.” Then, Papay said, the conversations moved to resources and now, resiliency, wellbeing and the future.
  • Asking the right questions: Papay encouraged the use of direct pulse questions that lead to action. As an example, he offered a question one of his clients recently pulsed across their entire population: “Name one thing that stops you from getting work done fast.” Short, direct and actionable questions net better responses.
  • A captive audience: Members echoed Papay’s claim that employees are more willing to help co-create the future amid this crisis than they were before. One member described a recent company-wide “jam” with an “incredible level of engagement” to address the topics of: How do we reinvent how we work and lead? How do we reinvent how we engage with our clients? And how do we deliver solutions to our clients? Now, the company is deep into the analytics of the jam and in the process of pushing results back out to employees.
  • Survey fatigue: A member asked Papay about survey cadence, reporting some survey fatigue in her organization. Acknowledging the concern, Papay said companies should not ask more questions than they can “metabolize into action.” To ask and not act is a real detriment to trust and engagement, he said, noting that clients who translate survey results into action see their survey participation rates increase over time.

Thank You

Thank you to all who participated for your energy and enthusiasm! We will have more of these Virtual Roundtable Discussions to continue the conversation and send out surveys and resources on specific topics concerning COVID-19.

If your team is dealing with similar issues or have questions you’d like answered please fill out the form below!

May 28 COVID-19 Emergency Member Session Recap

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