Back to Work: Hiring and Managing Teams in the COVID-19 Era

By Robert Half on April 9, 2021 at 7:00pm

More flexible work arrangements may be one of the pandemic-driven changes that will endure for businesses across industries for years to come. Many companies have realized their employees can be just as productive working remotely. And many employees already have their sights set on working from home at least part of the time for the long term, according to research from Robert Half.

Our recent survey of more than 1,000 workers in the U.S. found that just 25% would like to go back to work at their company’s office on a full-time basis. At the other end of the spectrum are the 1 in 3 workers who said they would look for a new job if their employer required them to come back to the office full time. View an infographic with our survey results.

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So how do you navigate the preferences of your workers as you develop your office re-entry plan? And how do you ensure you’re hiring and managing teams appropriately as your company continues to define its new normal and look to a post-pandemic future?

Robert Half has unique insights that can help you answer those questions. As a global specialized staffing firm, we work with companies of all sizes on their staffing, recruitment and workforce planning efforts. Here are six lessons learned during the pandemic that can help inform your company’s plans for getting employees back to the office:

1. Reopening the office requires significant changes (and lots of reassurance and transparency)

When you return to work in-office, it’s not just a matter of unlocking the doors and letting everyone back in. You need a strategy that encompasses governmental guidelines as well as some of your own that you consider crucial to safeguarding the health of your employees, visitors, customers and vendors.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have published guidelines and recommendations for employers planning to reopen their offices and businesses. Make sure to check these organizations’ websites regularly for up-to-date guidance.

Along with careful consideration of new safety protocols, your plan for returning to work at the office should include addressing your employees’ concerns. Think about the actual experience of going back to work and how you can make that as positive as possible for your people. For example, you may want to consider offering employer-provided childcare, if possible. That is on the wish list of workers we recently surveyed about returning to the office.

Also address the emotional state of your team members. Being unsure what to expect when they go back to the office while also being worried about their health can be overwhelming.

Be clear about the specific steps the company is taking to promote worker health and safety and that these things are top priorities for the business. Consider a message from leadership welcoming people back on the first day of reopening. But don’t stop there: Transparent, continuous communication is essential.

2. A hybrid workforce necessitates new ways of managing teams

While many managers have gained experience managing fully remote employees over the past year, the challenges are different when it comes to overseeing hybrid teams. Here are three tips for managing a dispersed workforce that’s split between the office and remote locations:

  • Help everyone stay connected. During video calls, update off-site staff on key takeaways from meetings held at the office that could impact their projects. Another idea could be to continue with all-virtual team meetings. Also, keep a pulse on whether technology is helping or hindering your workers. Ask them which tools — and which features of those solutions — are helping them communicate and collaborate most effectively.
  • Don’t stop remote nonwork conversations. Encourage in-office and remote staff to interact with each other as people, not just teammates. Throughout the pandemic, many organizations and their workers have used communication tools like Zoom and Slack to share stories, play games, have informal chats and engage in fun team-building exercises. Consider embracing or expanding this practice to enhance the human connection between all your team members.
  • Be vigilant for signs of disconnection. Don’t overlook the fact that some remote workers may start to feel left out if they’re not physically returning to the office. Out of sight shouldn’t mean out of mind. Look for red flags signaling that remote workers are struggling, such as missed deadlines, lack of communication or decreased interest in assignments.

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3. Stay agile when managing teams

Directing the projects of people working both in an office and at home requires strong coordination skills, creative thinking and a willingness to adapt and pivot. You also have to excel at maintaining a dynamic blend of full-time and contract staff to address changing market conditions. As business begins to improve and you need to hire new staff or reinstate furloughed employees, you need to be better than ever at managing a mix of resources.

4. You have access to more top talent than ever before

Millions of people have lost their jobs or have been under-employed during the pandemic because of business conditions, not performance. The quality of the available labor pool is high right now, but this will change. Quickly. We’re seeing the demand for skilled talent already rising in many markets and industries.

Employers open to hiring remote workers have more recruiting choices because they essentially remove geographic barriers to talent. You can engage job candidates from across the globe as easily as those living near your office. This provides an opportunity to hire people with valuable skills for immediate and future business needs.

If you’re reluctant to hire permanent staff until you’re more confident the economy is well on the road to recovery, you can instead tap into the high-quality contract talent pool to meet demand.

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5. You need help hiring

Businesses that are hiring are grappling with a high number of applications in the current job market, which makes it even more challenging to identify and secure the best available talent quickly.

The hiring process is time-consuming, too: Once you’ve vetted resumes, you’re looking at a series of initial phone interviews, video or in-person interviews for your top choices, skills testing, reference checks and other steps. Meanwhile, you’re slammed with juggling the management and technological challenges that accompany leading a remote or hybrid team.

A specialized recruiting firm like Robert Half can help. We have a pool of candidates whose skills and experience have been evaluated. And we’re able to handle most of the details of the hiring process for you. We can also advise you on the market rate for salaries.

6. Your retention programs will be tested

As the recovery takes hold, make sure your best people aren’t on the target list of employers accelerating their hiring. Consider these retention tips:

  • Pay your top performers well. Even in times of relatively high unemployment, if you aren’t meeting or exceeding what other companies pay for similar work, you risk losing your most valued employees.
  • Be flexible. Allow a wide degree of latitude in working hours and deadlines. Our recent survey found that the ability to set their own office hours topped employees' return-to-office wish list.
  • Focus on employee wellness. Consider amplifying wellness offerings if you haven’t already. Offering webinars on topics such as stress management and mind-body relaxation is one idea.
  • Stay attuned to workers’ preferences. The previously mentioned Robert Half survey also found that many professionals are looking for their employer to help with commuting expenses and offer a more relaxed dress code when returning to the office.

Heading back to work is different for everyone

The exact timeline and process for employees returning to the office varies by company. Perhaps the best gift you can give your staff in the months ahead is to make it clear you don’t expect them to return to work on-site until they’re ready. That should help boost their morale — as well as their loyalty.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a time like no other, and its effect on workers will be lasting. So even as things continue to improve, don’t stop expressing your appreciation for everything your team is doing to stay productive and contribute to the company’s bottom line. After all, it’s your dedicated employees who will ultimately get your business through the crisis and positioned to succeed in the future.

For additional strategies on returning to work, check out this video featuring Paul McDonald, Senior Executive Director at Robert Half, and statistician and well-being expert, Nic Marks.

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