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Bringing employees: 5 Steps to a new normal

Benjamin Granger, Ph.D.

As the old adage goes, “trouble comes in threes”. Now that businesses have successfully navigated the stormy waters of reacting to COVID-19 and transitioned employees to remote work, the latest challenge that businesses must endure comes from what should be the easiest step – bringing people back into a new normal.

This is a new challenge, and the task of navigating these uncharted waters is falling squarely on the shoulders of HR professionals. In fact, some of the most critical issues facing businesses today are being tackled by HR professionals.

The difficulty in this task comes from the very nature of the modern workforce, which has become a decentralised global network of employees. It’s very possible that within each team you’ll find people in different regions, obeying different government orders and navigating the lockdown in different ways and at different times. This makes it incredibly difficult to standardise an approach to employee experience (EX). 

Despite these challenges and the nuanced approach that they dictate, we have observed five distinct stages of transitioning to a ‘new normal’ and the EX priorities that should be focused on at each stage. It’s important to note that these are broad brush strokes, and there’s no set timeframe for moving between each stage.

Stage 1: Responding to change

The first stage, which most businesses have now passed, is the initial response to the crisis. Over the past two months organisations in this stage focussed on ensuring business continuity, employee health and wellbeing, remote work enablement and equipping essential front-line workers with the tools and protections they need.

While many have passed this stage, it is important to reflect on the changes organisations implemented, as many of these should and will continue into the future.

Stage 2: Planning the return

As many companies plan to return to their pre-COVID-19 operations, this is the stage that most organisations now find themselves in. Many businesses are juggling employees who are chomping at the bit to get back in the office, those who want to return eventually but are not yet ready and those who would prefer to remain remote long-term. In fact, our research indicates that 65% of the UK workforce is not yet comfortable with returning to the workplace. As such, the most pressing EX responsibilities during this stage fall into assessing the readiness of your employees to return to the office and making the appropriate distancing, sanitisation and compliance arrangements to ensure they can do so safely.

During this stage, it’s important that businesses keep listening to employees about the reasoning behind their preferences on returning to the office rather than focusing solely on the organisations’ desire to return to normal operations.

For example, a major concern for employees at one national healthcare service was childcare, which naturally influenced their preference on when to return to the office. As a result of this listening, the service is trialling split-shifts and enhanced working from home policies which will help to inform long-term policy changes.

Stage 3: The first steps back

In many ways, stage three is where the majority have been silently (or not so) hoping to reach, as it most resembles our pre-COVID-19 lives. The specific EX priorities at this stage will differ from organisation to organisation and are based on a number of factors, such as industry or numbers of personnel. However, these factors are largely characterised by health and safety measures being front of mind. Tools such as symptom checkers, track and trace protocols and new policies and protection equipment are but some of the focuses of the organisations that find themselves in this stage. 

This stage also comes with it the added challenge of retraining staff en masse – where, as employees return, they need to know the new policies, protocols and processes of how to safely do their job in an environment that they may assume they still know.

Stage 4: Ramping it up

Though an exceptionally small number of businesses have actually reached this stage, we’ve seen companies thinking ahead and implementing new workplace norms. The ones which are having the most success in this regard are firmly shaping their policies based on the listening that they’ve done in prior stages. These companies are also ensuring that they continue to listen so that the changes are lasting.

It’s at this stage that businesses must be prepared to revisit elements of the prior stages and ensure they have it right. As mentioned in the previous stage, some employees will naturally feel as though they understand the capacities of their role, know their place of work, and are aware of how to do their job. While it may be easy to fall into old habits, previous ways of working must not be favoured over new safety measures or it could seriously slow the transition through these stages.

Stage 5: The new normal

While it comes with its own challenges, this final stage is the one that every organisation has their eyes on. Companies must acknowledge that any previous work that has been done on EX may be outdated and the dramatic events of the last few months could have had a profound impact on your employees’ behaviours, expectations and needs.

This also goes for hiring and onboarding processes. Each element of your employee’s experience will need to be reconciled with the fact that we will be in a new normal.

Ultimately, there is no one size fits all roadmap for businesses to progress through these stages. The sheer number of variables and moving parts is exactly why employee experience management is so valuable. It’s a discipline predicated on constant listening and learning, implementing feedback into the decision making process and being agile in adapting to change; three components that are critical for navigating through these stages and bouncing back the right way.

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