How plan sponsors can make the new normal better than ever

Over the past few months, we’ve all had to deal with the challenges of social distancing and self-isolation.

Some people have faced the extra pressure of continuing to work without interruption to earn a living, while also providing daily childcare. Others have dealt with the challenges of social isolation and living alone.

For those of us who have had enough of isolation, it’s tempting to think relief may be close at hand since economies are slowly reopening across Canada. But while a return to the office is now on the horizon, the office we come back to won’t be the same one we left. Floor plans may be  redesigned, barriers may be put in place and formerly busy common areas may have occupancy limits.

Read: Coronavirus pandemic means ‘new normal’ for employers, employees

Our new office lives will be hybrid lives: part virtual, part physical. While this presents logistical challenges, it also creates an opportunity to rethink employees’ experiences, to have them understand their employer feels and shares their concerns, to create a more flexible work environment and to ensure the whole experience — from onboarding to offboarding — is geared toward keeping the workforce engaged and productive through the pandemic and beyond.

As organizations contemplate their return-to-work strategy, they must listen to their employees’ concerns, demonstrate empathy and position themselves for success through what we call the three Rs: Respond, Return and Reinvent.

Respond reflects what an employer should be doing right now: taking the pulse of the workforce, determining their stresses, concerns and fears and responding to them as best as they can.

Then, when an employer has listened to their employees’ concerns, they must act on them. The challenges of remote work and social distance are significant — and employers that have invested in workforce wellness are seeing the benefits, not just in terms of workforce morale but also in terms of productivity.

Read: HP Canada finds balance between inclusion, intrusion while onboarding during coronavirus

These tools should inform current policies and COVID-19 response initiatives. They should also help guide phase two: the return to the workplace.

Return does not mean a wholesale return to normal. Not only is normal no longer possible in many places due to social distancing requirements, but as a result of employee fears related to the pandemic, it isn’t even desirable. Returning to the workplace doesn’t mean the end of listening and pulse-taking. Rather, these efforts should be strengthened.

For some organization, that means planning for disruptions and actively managing expectations as cost containment measures and furloughs become necessary.

For others, it means rethinking the employee experience — how does an employee feel they’re part of an organization when the rhythms of office life have been disrupted? For almost every organization, it means rethinking productivity metrics and benchmarks, as added stress levels make working a challenge. And perhaps even reworking job descriptions to ensure employees are focusing on the work they need to be doing in a pandemic context.

For employees, coming back to work will be a new normal; an employer’s job is to define what that new normal will be. That’s the third R: reinvent.

Read: Five workplace changes that should stay post-coronavirus

Organizations that have gone remote have already been required to make significant adjustments, reactively, and to reinvent themselves out of necessity. With time to prepare — and with herd immunity still a long way off — we can make the next wave of reinvention strategic.

An organization’s employee experience answers certain fundamental questions: Do I belong in this organization? Do I know what I’m supposed to do and how I’m supposed to do it? Do I know where we’re headed? And perhaps the most important one — What’s in it for me?

COVID-19 has made answering these questions difficult, as many things that are certain have become less so, but the resulting changes in operations can help employers to shape a new employee experience.

For example, organizations are doing more with less in the present economic environment, but “what’s in it for me?” can still have a positive answer for an organization that’s invested in health and wellness benefits.

Read: Supporting employees’ workplace health, financial wellness during coronavirus

Earlier this year, in our inaugural health on demand survey, we found 64 per cent of employers believe that digital health benefits have a positive impact on employee energy levels and one in four workers confirmed they’d be less likely to leave if their employer invested in digital wellness benefits.

As health has taken centre stage during a global pandemic that focus on wellness is now a critical part of an organization’s employee value proposition — and one that will serve the employer well.

COVID-19 is a crisis without precedent in the modern world. But when the pandemic is over, it will be time for recovery, which presents an opportunity for reinvention and reorientation toward what employees will need in the future.