For the past two months, most of the United States has been living under stay-at-home orders. But those temporary shutdowns weren’t intended to last forever — or even until a vaccine is developed. For regions that are flattening the curve and have adequate hospital capacity, staying inside yields rapidly diminishing returns. We now understand that the world will be living with the new coronavirus for a while, and it’s time to take small, smart steps toward “a new, safer status quo.”
This week, the Luminary Labs team gathered — virtually, of course — to talk about what “reopening the office” might look like. New York City is still on “pause,” and we won’t be able to return to our office until our state, city, and building will allow it. But as we wait for official guidance from authorities, we met to discuss the values that will dictate the company’s decisions and the many options our operations team is actively researching and evaluating.
At the same time, we also asked Lab Report readers about their own companies’ plans. Most respondents expect their offices to reopen this summer or fall, but some said they worried that companies would reopen too soon or not take employees’ concerns into account. While a majority of those who responded are getting updates from their company’s leaders, nearly one in four respondents haven’t received any communication at all yet.
Bidirectional flows of information and open lines of communication are more important than ever — even when no one has answers and the path forward isn’t yet obvious. With that in mind, we’ve outlined our best advice for navigating both formal and informal conversations about your own organization’s smart restart.
Advice for leaders
- Communicate before you have answers. Silence can be misinterpreted as secrecy; most employees will understand nuance and value transparency.
- Read everything, including perspectives you disagree with. Hold off on hot takes and learn to recognize confirmation bias.
- Ask people what they’re thinking about, and hold off on judgement. Employees may be making important life decisions while navigating the organization’s power dynamics or dealing with stressful personal situations.
- Reduce uncertainty as much as possible. Not knowing what the near-term future looks like is incredibly stressful. If your company is in a position to clearly articulate options, consider offering employees that peace of mind.
Advice for employees
- Prepare for the marathon; this isn’t a sprint. A two-month disruption feels endless, and another 24 months feels like an eternity. But people and organizations are resilient, and there will be a time when we have lively, in-person meetings again. Until then, we’ll need to continuously adapt.
- Know that there is no playbook. Most leaders aren’t deliberately withholding information; in fact, many feel just as scared and unsure as their employees. They are probably trying to make thoughtful decisions and avoid making announcements that might be misinterpreted or need to change. (And everything will change after it’s announced.)
- Ask questions and initiate conversations. It’s sometimes scary to speak up, especially if you think your company’s or manager’s perspective might be different than your own. Use all the forums available to you — one-on-one meetings, all-hands gatherings, anonymous feedback forms, and conversations with HR teams.
- Understand the dynamics at play. Employers must balance employee feedback and individual requests with the organization’s interests — which include retaining jobs and ensuring the company’s survival during a time of economic uncertainty.
Advice for everyone
- Companies love to brag about agility — this is the time to walk the talk. Every organization and team will try things that don’t work; no matter how carefully you plan, you’ll have to make real-time adjustments. Build in as much flexibility as possible; prepare to experiment and respond to feedback.
- Practice empathy for every situation. Everyone — even someone who appears to be minimally affected — is dealing with something. Some are ill, have loved ones who are suffering, or are at risk of becoming sick; some have lost loved ones. Some families have lost jobs or are struggling to make ends meet. Some home situations — ranging from domestic violence and personal safety concerns to problems accessing the internet — make working from home difficult. Parents aren’t just dealing with homework and kids who are acting out, but mental health and children experiencing depression. And those who live alone miss in-person contact with friends and family. Assume every person is carrying a heavy burden.
- Put yourself out there. All productive conversations require some level of vulnerability. Don’t be afraid to initiate a discussion, even before your own perspective is fully formed — that’s the best time to collaboratively form a shared vision for a better future.
Full summary of survey results
Luminary Labs conducted a flash survey from May 8-14, 2020, to find out how companies plan to adapt as the broader economy reopens. We asked Lab Report readers when they will return to their offices, what will be different, and how they feel about it. The following is a narrative snapshot of the responses we received.
Almost all respondents (95%) are currently working from home. Three-quarters (74%) say this has been a big shift for them.
Most respondents work in situations that are similar to Luminary Labs. The vast majority are in dense, urban areas (79%) where employees rely on public transit (68%) and in open office spaces (82%) that share common areas like bathrooms and elevators with other companies (74%).
No one knows for certain when their offices will reopen. (Zero respondents say they have a definitive date.) Half (50%) say they’re receiving regular communication from their companies and have a rough idea of when they’ll reopen. Nearly one-quarter (24%) have received no communication at all yet. And 21% are somewhere in between — they’re receiving regular communication but have no idea when they’ll reopen.
Many think their office will reopen in the summer (47%) or fall (32%). One in 10 said not until 2021.
… But these individual respondents may be slower to return to the office themselves. Only 16% see themselves going back this summer; the rest think they’ll return in the fall (42%) or next year (29%).
Companies are considering how to be flexible — or maybe just haven’t formed one-size-fits-all policies yet. Two-thirds of respondents (66%) say their company is considering options flexible enough to accommodate personal situations such as health concerns or caring for children at home. Two-thirds (66%) are also considering partially remote or distributed work. A majority say their companies will consider wearing masks in the office (63%) and/or working staggered or flexible schedules (61%). A much smaller segment of respondents say their companies are considering fully remote work (18%) or expanding their office space to allow for social distancing (13%).
We asked an open question about what companies will get wrong. Nearly one-quarter (24%) expressed some variation of “I’m worried that companies are going to reopen offices too soon.”
A number of respondents also expressed frustration that organizations are not listening to employees or thinking about things like mental health, burnout, or creating a safe working environment.
Some respondents also mentioned opportunities to improve remote work — making it more sustainable and collaborative. One comment stood out: “We need to figure out how to make WFH as effective as in-office work. We’ve lost the informal drop-ins and replaced those with meetings. We don’t have beginnings and ends to the days.”
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