Returning to the Office? Here’s What HR Needs to Do.

The pandemic changed the face of office planning forever. Here’s a guide on how HR leaders can adapt.

Written by Sunny Betz
Published on Nov. 03, 2021
Returning to the Office? Here’s What HR Needs to Do.

The team at the life insurance software company Bestow was accustomed to going into the company’s office in downtown Dallas to work. Then the pandemic hit. Like many other companies, Bestow’s HR and leadership team decided to shift to a fully remote work model, but they were still left with a million questions: How would they adapt? What would the future of the company hold? And would they ever return to the office?

Those questions will eventually be answered. With mass vaccination and shifting guidance from government officials, companies are beginning to phase in-person workplaces back into their office planning. Bestow is no exception. 

“[The company], which went fully remote during the pandemic, is embracing a hybrid workplace culture with flexible work hours as it returns to its offices in the coming months,” said Brittney Burgett, Bestow’s head of communications. “They chose a hybrid model due to employee’s enjoying the flexibility of WFH, but also valuing meaningful moments of in-person collaboration.” 

Bestow’s hybrid model is a compromise — employees can elect to return to the office, but those who are still wary of the virus have the option to remain at home. It’s a middle ground that other organizations have also chosen, and it’s a step in the right direction but many companies have accepted that the pre-pandemic office plan isn’t going to work anymore.

However, Burgett said this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Office planning during pandemic has been stressful and challenging for HR leaders, but it has also presented some unique opportunities for growth.

How to Plan a Return to the Office

  • Pay attention to the news: Keep track of guidelines from the CDC and the WHO, as well as state and city regulations.
  • Leave a paper trail: Put your policies in writing and over communicate updates to your team.
  • Make a vaccination plan: Collect info on which employees have been vaccinated, and develop a protocol that protects your teams.
  • Update your benefits: Offer wellness or office supply stipends in lieu of office benefits.
  • Adjust your company culture: Give managers stipends for team outings and host virtual events.
  • Prioritize your people: Develop a coronavirus exposure plan and put your team’s safety first.

“In March 2020, we went fully remote and closed down the offices much like other businesses,” she said. “During that time, the team grew exponentially. And despite the challenges of the year, and the health and safety concerns, the team showed up and fully showed their commitment to the business and ability to be highly productive even while remote.” With no ties to in-person office locations, Bestow was able to hire employees across the country and grow even more than would have been possible otherwise. The hybrid model, which at first was a compromise, turned out to be an asset. 

“It became clear that it was something that we needed to continue with, in order to attract and retain top talent, and to keep growing the business in the way that we have,” Burgett said.

The pandemic has left an indelible impact on the tech world, and the office may never look the same. HR leaders have a lot of hurdles to overcome when planning their offices and taking care of their people, but they also have an exciting opportunity to rewrite the future of both their companies and the tech industry as a whole. 

There’s no roadmap for a company’s pandemic response, but there are new policies and ideas from companies like Bestow that mitigate risk, keep employees safe and maintain a healthy culture. Here are a few examples of how HR leaders in the tech world are planning their return to the office.

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Pay Attention to New Guidelines

The coronavirus pandemic has taken unpredictable turns, and every day there are new guidelines, regulations and updates from the WHO and the CDC to keep up with. In order to create office plans that are realistic, flexible, and keep employees’ best interests in mind, HR leaders must stay up to date with the latest advisories and news relating to the virus.

“This is tough because normal companies do not have plans for pandemics,” said Fox Holt, chief executive officer at Dallas-based healthtech company Vigilant Software. “The key is being human and acting logically. Constantly drive for the real data about the threats of the virus, and understand and accept business goals are shifting.”

Susan Lorenc, legal partner at the Chicago office of Thompson Coburn LLP, explained that it’s important for companies to pay attention to state and city guidelines in addition to federal guidelines, especially if those companies have remote employees in different regions. Mask and vaccine requirements, as well as limits on in-person gatherings, should all be followed. 

“I would suggest they work hand-in-hand with legal counsel to ensure that any policy corresponds with the law, especially since the law is changing and evolving quite rapidly,” Lorenc said. “Make sure that the company has a robust plan to adhere to federal, state and local rules, such as the CDC and OSHA’s guidelines, around cleaning protocols, sufficient spacing of desks, masks and testing.”


Leave a Paper Trail

If there’s one lesson to be learned from the pandemic, it’s that communication is key to any company’s sustainability. If you want your team to adapt and succeed in the current climate, keeping them in the dark isn’t an option. Place an emphasis on regular communication and carve out frequent spaces to share updates and encourage feedback from your employees.

“Teams really want to feel like they are being informed,” said Anna Dearmon Kornick, head of community at San Francisco-based workplace scheduling software company Clockwise. Her employees begin every Monday morning with a “weekly kickoff” meeting — there, the company’s HR team offers updates on the status of their return-to-work plan, and provides reminders about company policies. 

Burgett shared that for her team at Bestow, it’s been helpful to get all their current policies in writing so that employees have documents they can refer back to in case they’re unclear about current expectations. 

“All of our policies formerly live within Confluence, and the team gets updates when those are changed,” Burgett said. “Make sure that you’re choosing tools that can put formal written policies in place that people can access at any time, like a knowledge base.”

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Make a Vaccination Plan

Vaccination expectations are a grey area for many companies. Employees at government contracted companies are required to get vaccinated, but private companies have to come up with their own policies regarding vaccination.

Holt explained that, because of Vigilant’s healthcare technology focus, vaccination was actually an easy matter to resolve. “We are very in tune with the plight of nurses, so we didn’t need to implement a mandate to get vaccinated. Everybody voluntarily got the vaccine,” he said. “Our team knows our customers and knows that the majority are proponents of vaccinations.”

But for other companies, the logistics of vaccination can be more of a headache. Some organizations with hybrid models have opted to only require vaccination for employees who choose to go into the office, a decision that necessitates a solid paper trail to track which employees have gotten their shot. A handful of remote companies have chosen to not implement a vaccine mandate at all, leaving the decision to get vaccinated up to their employees.

Burgett said while Bestow doesn’t have a formal vaccine mandate in place for their employees, the approach that has worked for them is leading by example. “Our founders are both vaccinated,” she said. “Our CEO Melbourne O'Banion made a point to say, ‘I am personally vaccinated, I think all of you should get vaccinated, I’m going to get the booster shot.’ I appreciate that he put his personal element on it.”


Update Your Benefits

The pandemic has forced HR leaders to reconsider everything about how they plan their offices, and that includes their approach to benefits. You can’t exactly offer gym memberships or an onsite gym to remote employees, and if you’re operating on a hybrid model, you have to make sure everyone enjoys the same benefits, whether they’re working from home or not. Get creative about the experience you provide your teams, and come up with solutions that work for everyone.

“Companies need to consider their benefits and if their benefits actually serve a hybrid workplace,” said Burgett. “Think through rolling out meaningful benefits that show your employees that you care, and that you hear the challenges they have in their day to day lives.”

Gym memberships and prime desk space don’t work as perks for remote teams, but Clockwise has taken a unique approach to make sure all their employees are still able to enjoy comparable benefits at home. “New employees are given a $500 stipend to put toward making their work from home experience more comfortable, like buying a desk so they’re not working from the kitchen table,” said Kornick. “There's also a $100 monthly wellness stipend that can be put toward anything that enhances their wellness. We’re trying to go beyond just making sure that they’re taking care of work, and give employees resources to take care of themselves.”

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Adapt Your Company Culture

Challenges caused by the pandemic have not only made it tougher for employees to be productive — they’ve also made it harder for them to have social lives at work. In addition to handling paperwork, benefits and office planning, HR leaders have to do their best to make sure employees are happy, and that means supporting peer connection and company culture. 

Unified team bonding in a hybrid workplace is challenging, but it’s not impossible. Your teams might not be spending everyday together in person, but HR leaders can support socializing by offering managers stipends for team outings or hosting virtual events. Burgett said it’s important to facilitate in person gatherings, even if they only happen once a month. “Our company has been very intentional about encouraging managers to plan team get togethers on a quarterly basis,” she said. “Make sure that you plan some kind of outing with your team, whether it’s bowling, painting, or grabbing drinks together. As we intentionally move towards this hybrid workplace culture, we want to make sure there are still meaningful moments of collaboration.”

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Prioritize Your People

While they are of course important variables, workplace culture and productivity can’t be the driving factors in your return-to-work plan. Don’t try to force a plan into place based solely on quarterly objectives or what other companies are doing. The driving factor in your office planning should be employee safety. 

Bestow’s hybrid model wasn’t fully planned, Burgett said. Instead, it happened organically. “It didn’t feel right to tell people they had to come back into the office immediately,” she said. “It became clear that the remote culture was mostly working for us.”  Rather than attempt to revert to a pre-pandemic office plan, Bestow’s HR team listened to their employees’ wishes and concerns, and found a middle ground that worked for everyone. 

No plan is foolproof, and there will be incidents of coronavirus exposure on your teams, even if they are remote. Kornick, who has a background in crisis communications, said that leaders need to plan for the worst, and put safety first. “You need to identify the obstacles in advance and come up with that solution, so if those scenarios do pop up, you’re better prepared,” she said. HR teams can mitigate harm by developing an effective contact tracing plan in case of exposure, and keep track of vaccinations.

At the center of all this planning should be genuine care for your employees. That way, even if the worst happens, you’ll be able to mitigate harm and will show your team that you’re invested in their wellbeing.

“Companies also have to ask, ‘what are our core values? And how do we live out those core values through the policies that we create?’” she said. “Making sure that your core values are infused in those decisions keeps your employees best interests at heart.”

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