Advice From Small Businesses Who Have Returned to Workplaces
Hear from small business owners around the country on what the return to their workplace has been like — and what they would’ve done differently.
If you’re like most small businesses, you’re getting ready to go back to the office this summer. To ease your return to the physical workplace, we reached out to small business owners across the country who have already transitioned back for some advice. Here’s what worked well for them, and what they wished they knew sooner.
What worked well
Troubleshoot with “test rounds”
We ran a “test round” of bringing employees back into the office. We had separate sets of employees come into the office as we’d set up [the new layout] and let us know what they might appreciate as an addition, or what rules or items they think don’t need to be incorporated. After a few runs of this, we’d set up an office environment that [employees] were happy with and one which allowed them to communicate effectively with employees who are still in remote positions.
When you’re changing your employees’ work environments, you of course need to involve them in the process, so listen to what they have to say and do the best that you can to fulfill their needs.
— Teri Shern, Cofounder of Conex Boxes
Use a phased approach
We have returned more than 75% of our employees back to the office as of today. And yes, it’s been challenging — and exhilarating — since the office has been empty for so long.
A phased approach allows you to reintegrate the employees at a slow pace. It also allows you to see potential problems while the numbers at the office are still small and manageable.
A phased approach worked quite well for us. We staggered our return-to-work strategy, letting the crucial team members in the office return before the others. As it stands, we still have a handful of team members still working remotely. A phased approach allows you to reintegrate the employees at a slow pace. It also allows you to see potential problems while the numbers at the office are still small and manageable.
The first week may have been hard for some of our teams. There was a definite drop in productivity. However, that is to be expected given the fact that they had become used to remote working and the remote tools. That said, the rest of the way has been somewhat of smooth sailing. Generally, most employees are already gearing up to be in the office. The excitement means that they come energized and ready to get going.
Skip Slack and talk in person, instead
One of the biggest challenges I have faced since returning to office work with my team is transitioning back to in-person communication. Despite being 20 feet from someone in the office, I constantly find myself looking for Slack to send them a message. While still efficient, I am trying hard to break this habit and make the effort to speak with my team members in person where I can.
After being physically apart for over a year, I can sense that our team has sort of drifted apart and our culture has somewhat eroded. So I am making a concerted effort to talk with everyone in the office every day, even if it’s just a 60-second pop-in to give them an update.
It’s been hard to break the Slack habit after being ingrained in me for a year, but it’s getting easier each day. For other managers that find themselves doing the same thing, my pro tip is to make your Slack window so small that you can’t type messages without having to expand it. This will remind you to go chat in person instead.
Provide a forum for feedback
Being a [law] firm that manages clients with PTSD, we are highly aware of the ramifications of not addressing matters that can cause worry, stress, or anxiety to individuals due to past experiences. That said, we have developed a forum for feedback for all facets of our company in regard to workload, communication, and social connection to instill that we are implementing enough of our employee’s concerns within our management’s decision process.
In hindsight, I believe we handled this circumstance the best way we could have given the situation and have smoothly transitioned back into the workplace quite easily. We have a policy that anyone who exhibits any kind of health concerns in any which way receives the utmost support and ability to take days off with a substitution policy in place.
Host reboarding for employees
I think the #1 factor that made our return successful was our structured reboarding. Rather than just bring everyone back and expect things to pick up where they left off, we planned activities and presentations for the first day with our whole team back. These included DEI training, a reintroduction to office policies and procedures, and icebreakers to get our team acquainted.
Since we made several hires during the COVID-19 months, this also functioned as a way to introduce our new people to their coworkers in-person for the first time.
Ease back to in-person meetings
Providing a clear timeline of return to the office was important to us throughout the process of returning to the workplace. Initially, we wanted to use the first week of our return to hold a lot of meetings and get everyone caught up with their teams. However, we ended up scrapping that plan.
We didn’t want to put too much pressure on employees as soon as they were back. So we’re taking a more staggered approach to meetings for now.
Having the willingness to show vulnerability allowed me to relate better and slowly integrate people back into the traditional workplace setting.
I proactively shared my personal experiences and emotions during the pandemic and how it [the pandemic] affected me, not only professionally but personally as well. I am a mom of two elementary-aged children, and I was in the worst mental state of my entire life being forced to be a “full-time” mother. Although I love being a mom and love my children dearly, I realized that I was not at my best when I was called on to step into this full-time role and work at the same time.
Relate to your employees by showing them that you are vulnerable just as they are — human and reasonable.
What they’d do differently
Rearrange the office
Maintaining the same sitting arrangement that we had before the pandemic was the perfect recipe for disaster, in hindsight. Even though we ensured social distancing, we thought that the same sitting arrangement would allow the employees to gain a little familiarity.
However, the same arrangement messed up our traffic flow, which meant that we had choke points in some of the office spaces. Needless to say, we had to rearrange the office.
Repurpose the break room until people are more comfortable socializing
In hindsight, I wish we’d repurposed or rearranged the break room before people returned. Even though our employees are vaccinated and we’re safe to be together, everyone is taking lunch outside or at their desks right now. The break room isn’t really being used, and we’re trying to figure out what to do with it.
Don’t expect the same productivity
What did not work was expecting the same productivity levels during the pandemic when everyone was working from home. There is hard data to support that although there were different distractions at home because there was not a “hard stop” as far as physically leaving an office or physical workplace, employees were more productive.
Now that we have returned to the office, there is a hard stop and the amount of work that does get completed in a day has gone down. Rather than bring attention to this, I should have expected it as we are all human and deserve to have our boundaries back.
Make reboarding longer
In hindsight, I wish we’d done a second day of reboarding. We’ve already put together a list of midyear training that we’re probably going to do in early fall. I’d recommend that small business owners leverage this as an opportunity for training and team building. It has really helped with the transition.
We’ve already put together a list of midyear training that we’re probably going to do in early fall. I’d recommend that small business owners leverage this as an opportunity for training and team building.
One other thing we have done to make it easier is relax our previous dress code — since people have been working from home in casual attire, we thought a transition to business clothes would be jarring. We are looking at revisiting it in the future, but for now, we’re allowing T-shirts, jeans, and the like.
Keeping your workplace and employees safe and comfortable
Going back to the office isn’t as easy as unlocking the doors. Keeping the workplace safe and your employees healthy and comfortable is a team effort. Use Workest’s guide to returning to the office once you’re ready to put pen to paper on your plan, and subscribe to our newsletter to get tips in your inbox every week on how to manage the transition back.