“Return-to-work” implies a going back to where we were. Is there a “going-back” or are we simply moving toward a whole new reality? In conversation with human resource leaders across the U.S., Boyden's Steve Nilsen explores cross-sector return-to-work strategies.
Nilsen: Is there a “going-back”?
Kurzenberger: We closed our offices and went 100% remote in mid-March, with the exception of a few essential people who are in the office periodically. At that time, we expected that we would return to the office in some form during the summer or shortly thereafter. We didn’t have a target date, however; instead, we chose to closely follow what was happening around the country, in particular, the states in which we have physical offices.
The outbreak ignited a cottage industry of seminars, workshops, and white papers offering “return to office” advice and training. In the early days, I think we were all keen to devour as much information as possible, and eventually it became overwhelming. We opted to narrow the field and follow guidance from the CDC and local health authorities and to make decisions that kept the safety of our team members first and foremost.
By going 100% remote, we have not missed a beat. We are moving forward – taking care of our clients, each other and sticking to our growth strategies. I am very proud of our team for adapting so quickly and seamlessly.
Nilsen: What are the biggest changes you have implemented to continue operating? In your return-to-work plan, what will remain as a COVID-19 legacy?
Kurzenberger: Prior to March, approximately a third of our employees already worked remotely. In addition, we all have the benefit of flexible work arrangements, including working from home 1-2 days per week. Because of our previous success with flexible work arrangements, moving quickly to an all-remote workforce didn’t pose as many challenges for us as it may have for some companies. In addition, we have always offered frequent virtual learning experiences, webinars, and lunch & learns. This will continue along with flexible work arrangements and our commitment to the health and safety of our people.
To make sure our employees don’t “drift” due to social isolation, we stepped up our employee communications via email and more frequent all-hands calls. We also implemented virtual activities to help our employees deal with new anxieties and stressors and to also remain connected to each other and to the business. These virtual activities included a wellness series of nutrition, yoga, and mindfulness. Over the next few months, we are also launching virtual team competitions, games, and story-telling, as well as virtual diversity learning experiences. I plan to continue virtual community-building in many creative ways.
In June, we created a return to office playbook that includes staggered schedules, guidance and mark-outs for physical distancing, available PPE, and “new rules for new times,“ required behaviors in communal spaces such as kitchens, conference rooms, etc. Our playbook is currently on hold until we determine a green light to return to offices. We will thrive in the new normal for as long as it takes.
Nilsen: What metrics are you tracking to help guide your organization’s return-to-work? Are you implementing new related internal metrics?
Kurzenberger: We will follow guidance from the CDC and local health authorities about returning to offices. Specifically, we watch their metrics such as local rates of transmission. As that number remains below the key benchmark for a sustained period, we will consider re-opening plans while remaining cautious about a possible second wave in the fall.
Nilsen: What do you anticipate will be the greatest obstacle in the return-to-work phase?
Kurzenberger: People have developed new habits and new rhythms in their lives that may need to adjust--again. That may be personally disruptive, and people will adapt as they generally do. Hopefully, they will find ways to maintain positive behaviors. I suspect virtual learning for school-age children is likely among the greatest challenges for working parents as offices re-open.
Nilsen: What is your greatest learning from this so far, and what advice would you offer as we continue to navigate these unchartered waters?
Kurzenberger: I am not the first or last to tell you this, but communication is critically important in every form and channel. We all need to feel connected and to believe that we belong. That experience, along with spontaneous collaboration, can happen naturally during a typical day in the office. Now, it takes more deliberate thought and effort, but communicate frequently-- and meaningfully if you can. More importantly, just do it.
We’ve talked a lot about the organizational response to the pandemic, but living in a covid world is also a very personal experience. We must remember that we are encountering the virus quite differently from each other. It may be a matter of where we live, our family circumstances, or our individual ability to adapt or to cope. Living and working in NJ, daily death tolls, equipment shortages, the rapid transmission, worry about family and my own possible demise… was constant and frightening. What we’re experiencing as individuals may be private, unique, and changeable. Lean in with empathy, be patient, be kind. While there is never a good time, now is absolutely not the time to be a jerk. We can and will get through this smarter and better.
I’ll sign-off as I do to my colleagues: “Stay well, Stay Focused, and Stay Connected!”
Read Issue 1 of HR: Return Strategy with Cathleen Allred, SVP, HR, Renfro
Read Issue 2 of HR: Return Strategy with Corderiette Calhoun, Head, Human Resources of Duke Foods
Read Issue 3 of HR: Return Strategy with Tracy Staines, VP, HR Global Media Operations of Nielsen
Read Issue 4 of HR: Return Strategy with Phil Webb, Global Head, HR, Crown Laboratories
Read Issue 5 of HR: Return Strategy with Karen J. Viera, SVP & Chief People Officer, Church's Chicken
Read Issue 6 of HR: Return Strategy with Lily Prost, EVP & CHRO, J.M. Huber Corp