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Key Steps To Assess When (And If) To Bring Employees Back To The Office

Now that states are slowly re-opening and organizations are exploring all their options regarding bringing employees back to the office, there are so many new questions that need to be addressed that leaders and managers are grappling with for the first time in their lives. One question so many are contemplating is, “Will my workplace ever be the same as it once before the pandemic?” And pressing questions have emerged on how to accurately assess when and if employees should be brought back to offices and physical workspaces.

“When it comes to measuring productivity, there are a few caveats,” says Mark Graban, M.B.A., M.S., author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, and a top expert in Lean Management who is helping companies evaluate at-home productivity.

“First, make sure not to include any measures from the first 2 weeks of the shutdown, as the adjustment and anxiety period likely impacted true ability levels,” adds Graban.  “Also, think about how you want to quantify productivity, which can be hard for a lot of white collar work because it’s usually measured in outputs, but should also include impact,” explains Graban, who consults across multiple sectors to build stronger and more adaptive organizations for the long term.

To learn more about how employers can engage in this effective assessment that keeps people safe while also supports employee productivity, I caught up with Mark Graban this week for his insights. Graban blends an in-depth understanding of engineering with practical experience working with executives and frontline employees across multiples industries to help companies build stronger and more adaptive organizations for the long term.  A guest lecturer at MIT, Wharton, Ohio State University, and several international universities, Graban helps companies incorporate lean management principles into their business models and works with startups, entrepreneurs and midsized businesses. His book Measures of Success explores using simple, yet practical statistical methods that help leaders overreact less to their metrics, which in terms frees up time for real, focused, and sustainable improvement.

Here’s what Graban shares:

Kathy Caprino: How would you gauge productivity during a work-from-home era compared to before?

Mark Graban: It’s important to focus on effectiveness and impact, not just activity. A classic management problem is that activities (like hours worked, calls made, social media posts sent) are easier to measure than the impact on business outcomes (like revenue or margin). That’s especially true when it comes to individuals who work in teams. The goal should be effectiveness and business results (customer satisfaction scores, new deals closed, etc.). That said, savvy leaders have a sense of their organization’s morale and productivity. We need to consider and evaluate the quality of the work that’s being done from home, as well.

At KaiNexus, a Texas-based software company, the executive team agrees that the company has been 90 to 95% effective when working from home these past two months, compared to the old normal of most everybody working in the office. Customers are still being taken care of, and new sales and renewals continue to come in. Measures are important, but gut feel and qualitative feedback from employees and leaders matters a great deal as well. Not everything that matters can be measured quantitatively.

 

Caprino: What sorts of safety considerations should one take into account when considering coming back to the office?

Graban: Surfaces and proximity are two key factors. Any surfaces that would be touched by more than one person need to have a cleaning and sanitizing plan. For example, if somebody uses the break room, are they expected to wipe down any hard surface they touched (coffee maker, refrigerator door handle, etc.) with a disinfecting wipe? Or are they expected to also wipe down surfaces before they touch them? If this is the expectation, can everybody commit to doing this without being policed (for their own safety and the health of colleagues)?

Are there some surfaces where touching is no longer necessary? For example, can door latches and handles be replaced with something that can be opened by pushing with your hip or elbow? If you have fingerprint scanners for entry, can that be replaced with a touchless option?

In regard to proximity, desks need to be more than six feet apart. A classic open office might need to add plexiglass partitions or cubicle walls. If meetings are being held, people need to be spaced appropriately. Masks might need to be worn unless you are sitting alone at a desk (although a best practice would be to leave the mask on as much as possible to avoid touching it unless you know your hands are clean). Offices might also use staggered starting times to reduce the density of people, or there might be a mix of work-from-home days that remain.

 

Caprino: How should you engage employees in the conversation about possibly coming back to the office?

Graban: As is true with any problem-solving activity, it is better to engage more people. Leaders should have conversations with employees about their own thoughts and feelings about the risk/reward of coming back to the office. What are their fears or concerns? What activities absolutely need to be done in the office, as opposed to home? What is their current personal situation that might require them to stay at home even if others go back?

From a safety standpoint, I’d suggest having employees go back to the office individually or in pairs (wearing masks and maintaining distancing) and go look for surfaces that would be touched or need to be disinfected. Your list will be more accurate, and your plan will be more effective, if people go look and see instead of just putting together a plan based on memories of the office.

 

Caprino: How do principles from “Lean” or the Toyota Production System enter into this discussion?

Graban: The Lean approach makes safety a precondition for all other work. If we can’t do work safely in the office, why are we there at all? Lean provides methods that allow us to be proactive in creating the safest-possible workplace, including “Failure Mode Effects Analysis” and “mistake proofing” to name a few. The Toyota principle of “Respect for People” means that we have to put safety first and we need to engage everybody in the planning and improvement process.

Lean also teaches us that we should work to create a solid plan, but we also shouldn’t expect that plan to be perfect (this is a key lesson that’s also taught in the Lean Startup methodology). The classic cycle of “Plan, Do, Study, Adjust” should be used (or think of it as “Build, Measure, Learn”). Have a plan, start executing that plan, but think of it as a test. As the test is underway, we need to study how that plan is working and if it’s not working as well as it needs to, we need to adjust accordingly.

 

Caprino: What about workplaces that have jobs that cannot be done remotely, such as healthcare clinics?

Graban: The focus should, again, be on being proactive and thinking through how care can be provided in the safest way possible. As with an office setting, clinics need to think through surfaces and proper distancing. How many chairs need to be removed from the waiting room? Better yet, can patients check in through a smartphone app and then just sit in their car until they can be seen by healthcare providers? A text message saying, “Come in and go back to Exam Room 5” can help a patient get there without contact, especially if way-finding signage is clear and helpful.

Contactless registration and payment systems (through a stored credit card number or mobile payments) can mean contact with a pen and clipboard and the need to hand over a credit card can be a thing of the past.

Beyond creating a safer office visit, it’s a time for healthcare organizations to rethink what can be done through telephone or virtual video visits. Again, it’s a time to be proactive and a time to rethink everything. It’s quite possible that a safer patient experience can also be an all-around better experience.

 

Caprino: How can organizations make an accurate assessment about whether it will be more advantageous and productive to bring employees back to the office or not?

Graban: Leaders can engage employees in a conversation about effectiveness. Are customer needs being met the same (if not better) when we’re working from home instead of the office? If working from home has had drawbacks, do we need to utilize different technologies or methods to improve how that work is done from home?

Does working from home hamper the development of products, software, or services? If so, we can consider going back to the office, even if the hours are more limited than before. Going back to the office doesn’t have to be a binary yes-or-no decision. We can take safe baby steps to see if the office environment can be safe and effective.

 

Caprino: Finally, what advice do you have for leaders and HR managers who want to do their best to create an effective transition back to in-office work?

Graban: Again, I would try to engage employees and leaders at all levels to develop that transition plan in a collaborative way. Top-down decisions and mandates run the risk of missing key details or alienating employees who want to have input into something that affects their own health.

If some employees feel more comfortable or want to come back to the office, let them be part of a first wave to test the new way of working. If some individuals are scared to come back to the office, to the point that it would harm their productivity, the quality of their work, or their wellbeing, let them be part of the group that stays at home most, if not all, of the time.

Organizations that manage this transition well will see higher employee engagement and loyalty. Employees will remember how they’ve been treated during these difficult times, and it’s vitally important to engage everyone in a respectful way.

 

For more information, visit MarkGraban.com.

To build a happier, more rewarding career, work with Kathy Caprino in her Career Breakthrough programs, and read her new book The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss.

Originally published at Forbes

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