Transparency, flexibility and technology are keys to returning to in-person work

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From the Beltway to the boardroom, across the country, the debate about when and how (and even if) we should return to our workplaces continues. As the vaccine rollout continues and offices reopen, our expectations for employers are clear: we want them to keep us safe, give us the flexibility to choose where we want to work and respect our privacy. 

But finding a way to meet all of these expectations has been a tricky puzzle that many business leaders are still working to solve. Unsurprisingly, most employers haven’t nailed down a concrete return to work strategy, and between rising cases in parts of the country, new strains of the virus and lingering distrust around vaccinations, there’s still a lot of uncertainty.

Still, in the face of this uncertainty, as we look back over the past year, there are a number of lessons that organizations should be mindful of as they finalize their return to work strategy: 

More Transparency Is Needed Around Return to Work Plans (Even If They’re a Work In Progress)

While business leaders may think that waiting to share a solid return to work plan is strategic, it can actually put unnecessary stress on employees as they start to think about the return to the office. During this year of uncertainty, many of us have turned to our employers to provide some sense of stability, guidance and clarity, and expect them to be transparent about any plans to reopen our workplaces.

But “instead of saying anything, they are saying nothing at all,” says Tamara Rodman, executive vice president of Chicago advisory services for Edelman. “That is infinitely more dangerous because uncertainty and ambiguity are so damaging to the human psyche and we have too much of that. With no communication about company plans, employees may be worrying about suddenly needing to figure out a childcare solution or look for a new job.” 

One of the ideal things an employer can do right now is determine and share their return to work plans with employees, giving them the peace of mind and time to prepare for the eventual transition back to the office. Employees understand there’s still a lot of uncertainty, but for many, knowing where the tentative plan currently stands is better than being left in the dark. The return to work will not only impact their professional life but also have a clear impact on their personal situation as well such as their role as primary caregiver, any impact to family members who are remote learning or other areas of need.

Meet People Where They Are

Over a year into the pandemic, the forced remote work experiment we’ve gone through during the last 12 months has been successful. And while we all know some form of remote work is here to stay, 87 percent of employees say the office is important for collaborating with team members and building relationships.

The issue is there’s no clear consensus around how many days of the week employees would like to go into the office moving forward. On top of that, people have varying levels of comfort when it comes to initially making their way back into the office — while some can’t wait to leave the work from home setups in their studio apartments, others are hesitant to venture out of quarantine until the majority of our population is vaccinated.

The solution? Business leaders need to listen, give people options that meet their current comfort levels, and create a flexible plan for their employees to choose when, where and how they do their best work — whether that’s back in the office or at home.

Invest in Solutions that Balance Safety and Privacy

As more companies look to reopen their office doors, a number of solutions have come to market to help them bring their employees safely back to work. And while many technologies can help contain and even prevent potential outbreaks, many of them have raised privacy concerns.

Most recently, the idea of vaccine passports has come to the forefront, requiring people to show proof of vaccination before they enter the building. But this has been met with widespread criticism due to privacy concerns and the fear that passports could lead to discrimination against those who decide not to get vaccinated. With only half of workers saying they are ‘very willing’ to provide proof of a vaccination to their employer, some policymakers have gone as far as proposing legislation to outlaw the use of these passports.

Fortunately, there are other solutions on the market that have found a way to strike the delicate balance between keeping people safe while respecting their privacy. Some digital contact tracing technologies, for example, were built with privacy top of mind, leaning on proximity data from WiFi and Bluetooth signals instead of location data to see if others were exposed to an infected employee. Some contact tracing apps also anonymize all data until a trace needs to be conducted and restrict the ability to pull the necessary contact tracing info to a trusted, designated administrator or group like a human resources department. 

And the benefits and efficacy of some of these solutions, such as contact tracing, is that their impact does not and should not stop at the workplace. As we think about the return to work, we also need to think about our return to a new normal of life. By investing in a strategy and solutions to keep people safe in the office, employers can help provide a spillover effect into our personal lives as we return to sporting events, outdoor concerts, conferences and other public activities.

Kevin Smithson is Mid-Atlantic Market managing partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Tags COVID-19 apps in-person work Privacy Telecommuting

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