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Does Your Company Need Onboarding to Return to the Office?

May 05, 2021 Employee Experience
scott clark
By Scott Clark

Much has changed in the workplace since employees left the office to work remotely at the beginning of the pandemic. Employees learned to use new software tools for communication and collaboration, project management, documentation and ongoing learning. They adjusted to the rapid changes that occurred and maintained and in many cases even increased their productivity, enabling businesses to remain functional and profitable.

Now, as the pace of vaccinations continue, employers are plotting a return to the office. Given the ways that those offices today differ from those of a year ago, should companies create an onboarding initiative for returning employees to smooth the transition to the next normal?

Some companies are doing just that to readjust employees to the changes that have occurred so far and prepare them for what's still to come.

How the Office Will Look Different

The workplace as we know it has adapted along with everything else during the pandemic. As office workers begin to return to the office, either as hybrid workers or full time on location, they will notice changes such as:

  • A wider dispersion of desks.
  • No permanently assigned desks.
  • Improved ventilation systems.
  • More regular deep cleanings.
  • More open spaces.
  • Fewer meetings in enclosed spaces.
  • Video whiteboards.
  • Less in-office employees at any given time.
  • Temperature scanning.
  • Contactless operations.

Employees may even be working some part of the week in a co-working space located closer to the employee’s home. It may be equipped with specialty equipment such as video whiteboards for virtual connected meetings with those still working remotely. Whatever the environment, the office employees return to will be markedly different from the one they left.

Related Article: The Future of Office Design Post-COVID

Onboarding for Returning Employees

Onboarding in the normal sense is commonly based around four Cs — compliance, clarification, culture and connection — and familiarizing new employees with company policies, expectations for their new job, company culture and their new co-workers.

That process, which is distinct from orientation which can last less than a week, can go for as long as 12 months. Social interaction with managers, HR and other employees is a big part of the onboarding process, as is aligning expectations, objectives, roles and responsibilities. 

Given the amount of time people have been apart, and the number of new employees who may have been hired in the last year, it's worth considering starting onboarding all over again. Elisabeth Duncan, director of human resources at Evive, a Chicago-based employee engagement and communication technology company, said companies need an updated onboarding program to guide employees safely back to the office and to re-engage the workforce.

“Many employees have never even seen the office or met their colleagues in person," she said. "Offices will also have new guidelines, procedures and need to reinforce safety measures. Employees will also need to familiarize themselves with new office layouts and seating.”

Although some employees are looking forward to getting back to the office, others may feel anxiety about working closely with others in an office environment. HR should survey employees about their transition back to the office, Duncan said, asking questions such as: 

  • How safe do you feel in our redesigned work space since transitioning back to the office?
  • Is there anything we could be doing differently to make you feel safer?
  • Do you know where to go for help with issues while transitioning back to the workplace?

The onboarding process should help employees understand that their employer genuinely cares about their well being. “Employee wellness affects how workers perform their job duties and sets the foundation for how they feel about their employer,” Duncan said. “Your updated onboarding should help employees maintain their overall health through comprehensive benefits and other programs that reduce anxiety, improve productivity and curb healthcare costs for employers.”

Related Article: Return to the Office and Employee Experience Are Two Sides of the Same Coin

Prioritize Communication in Onboarding Messaging

Before employees come back to the office, HR should use data-driven messaging to get the ball rolling on company training initiatives. Employees can get started though mini, non-mandatory training sessions at home before their first day back.

“Timely messaging that provides the employee with an introduction to an in-house lexicon or software/tools could help align the person to the company’s identity right away — and proactively addressing questions/concerns they might have as they await Day One,” said Duncan.

“Such communications could also facilitate early connections to employee affinity groups, local colleagues, or simple peer introductions to other new hires or the employee’s inherited team members to establish camaraderie.”

Along with getting employees back up to speed, such onboarding practices can help to alleviate the anxiety that many employees are likely to feel as they get used to working in closer proximity to one another.

Deb Muller, CEO and founder of HR Acuity, a technology platform for employee relations and investigation management, said the onboarding process should include fun elements that are effective for team building and making connections with other employees.

“Providing opportunities to socialize with coworkers helps boost morale and also helps to fully integrate new employees into the team,” she said. 

Related Article: What Absolutely Should Not Return to the Physical Workplace?

Don't Lose Sight of Health Concerns

Given the likelihood that COVID-19 will be with us for some time to come, policies that include a larger focus on health and welfare, cleaning practices and social distancing will make sense for many companies.

“No matter what return to office plan you implement it’s critical to allocate resources, such as a dedicated employee relations contact, to support employees during the transition," Muller said. "HR/ER and managers can work together to make sure policies and procedures are clearly communicated such as pre-screening requirements, vaccination policies and procedures to follow if an employee contracts COVID-19.”

Iain Fisher, director, digital strategy and solutions at Information Services Group, a technology research and advisory firm, said there will need to be a discussion about vaccination policies, health monitoring apps, and other ongoing health screening procedures.

“When workers do return, as some will, there will be short- to medium-term behaviors that need to be established and communicated," he said. "There has been much discussion about the need for bio passports to prove one is healthy before traveling, and the same may be true for a return to the office. Welcome-back initiatives may need to include a rollout of local health monitoring apps, useful not only for COVID but ongoing health and sanitation.”

As companies get their offices back up and running, they will need to rethink what is needed to safely work in a world where COVID-19 is not likely to be going away any time soon. Office access restrictions, temperature controls, pre-booking of desk space and reduced use of common office facilities will all need to be worked through. 

"All of this will need to be delivered through a 'back-to-work’ induction," Fisher said. "This is not a welcome-back reintroduction to life in the office; rather, it is an induction into a new way of working and behaving in the day-to-day life of the new office."

Along with other employees, managers will also need to be onboarded so they too are able to get back in the swing of things in the new normal, Fisher added.

The road back to the office in a post-COVID world may be a long one, and as employees come back to the office they will undoubtedly need to be re-educated about new procedures, practices and policies. The end goal for this onboarding is to show employees that they are valued, and that their health and safety will continue to be a top priority.

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