Learn how FWI approached the return-to-office planning process, and how communication has been a key part of safely welcoming employees back to the workplace.
I had mixed emotions as I drove to the office after being in isolation for the last eight-plus weeks due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. I was meeting a handful of colleagues to prep for the “Phase One” re-opening of our corporate headquarters in downtown Denver, an innovative space that supports more than 400 employees. We met that day to transform our three-story, beautiful workspace, into an environment that had the safety and well-being of our employees, clients, and community top of mind. Don’t get me wrong, we have always cared about the safety and well-being of our people, but now, the way we must think about those concepts—and how we make sure that all of our employees understand how we are addressing them—had become wildly different in a very short amount of time.
From the lens of the Chief People Officer, we have one of the best workspaces in Denver. In addition to the location, design, and office layout, we have plenty of digital signage applications throughout the building that improve navigation and facility management, but also celebrate our people, their passions, and best yet, even their pets. With our technology, we can push information to drive certain behavior by displaying information that is relevant and interesting to our employees. Adding to the overall welcoming feel of our office, we have a beautiful open floor plan, coffee bars, and shared spaces that are purposely designed to encourage high levels of interaction and conversation.
As I sanitized my hands, put on my face mask, and stood 6 feet apart from my colleagues, I knew immediately that the environment we once took for granted was not going to be the same—at least not in the near future. No more quick catch-ups at the coffee bars, no more sharing beauty products in the restrooms, and no more “huddles” in small conference rooms were happening any time soon. I was mourning what was and the work environment we had worked so hard to create.
While acknowledging my emotions, I knew it was important to switch my mindset. On a positive note, I felt confident that as a leadership team, we were prepared to bring our people back to the office. We had put in the work, having spent hours and days reading about best practices for re-opening office spaces, attending various webinars, and talking with other companies about strategies for bringing people back into the office. While it was now clearly going to be different, we had a plan and were ready to execute it.
Our approach to returning to the office focuses on the safety and wellbeing of the people and community we serve—and being highly intentional in our communications strategy. Our decisions on how and when to re-open were very fluid and still are to this day. While we will always ultimately make the best decisions for our people, our choices have been informed by a variety of government authorities, such as the CDC, the State of Colorado, and the City and County of Denver.
From the very beginning, we were intentional about being collaborative in our approach—not just with our leadership team and key stakeholders like our Business Continuity Team, but also with our people. We sent out an initial survey to gain insight into the perspective of our people, learning what were they worried about, excited about, and what they needed to be productive and happy. We continue to send out weekly surveys to solicit feedback and we use that data to help us make the best decisions for our people and company. We made a commitment to make all decisions collaboratively and make every effort to communicate those decisions well in advance to our people, so they are well informed. I feel strongly that this has helped make us successful.
Based on a variety of data points and government guidelines, we planned a limited re-opening in mid-May. We made returning to the office 100% optional and solicited volunteers who wanted to come back. We learned through our employee feedback surveys that some people don’t have proper desk equipment or home offices, some people feel they would be more productive in the office, and others are just longing for human interaction. In Phase One, we have less than 10% of our workforce returning. This phased approach is optimal for us because it not only allows the people who prefer to be in the office to do so, it also allows us to “test” the workspace. I’ll share more about that later in this article.
Communication will continue to be a huge focus for us as we navigate our new environment. We made an intentional choice to leverage our internal signage for ongoing communications as well as increase our regular communication with employees—there couldn’t be a better tool for the job. In addition to internal signage, we are hosting weekly Coffees & Conversations, a casual Zoom meeting that allows people to ask questions directly to the leadership team. We also send out weekly company updates via email and Slack.
Limited Access—we limited the days and hours for those employees that chose to return to the office. We are only opening the office three days out of the week (T, W, TH) which allows for more in-depth cleaning procedures. We also decided to limit entry to the building to one door so that we could ensure safety. In addition, we reduced the timeframe in which employees can come and go to 7 am-6 pm.
On-Going Collaboration—In partnership with leadership, we collaborated with IT, Security and Facilities to develop detailed building access and space utilization policies designed to maximize social distancing, health, and safety. These guidelines included entry and exit points, hand sanitation stations, social distancing guidelines, desk configurations, conference room set ups, and more.
Cleaning Protocols—We increased our cleaning protocols, supplies, and procedures. As mentioned above, this included additional hand sanitation stations as well as disinfectant sprays and wipes for all conference rooms, plus the removal of chairs from conference rooms. We also made good use of our signs to help communicate the new rules and ensure all of our people understand the new expectations.
Personal Protective Equipment—We made the decision to purchase gloves, face masks, and hand sanitizer. In addition to having stations around the office, we created welcome packets for each employee returning to the office.
Testing—We are currently exploring options for testing. As we all are aware, availability and options for testing evolves daily.
Compliance and Liability—We created an eLearning module in our Learning Management System (LMS) tool. This module contains interactive elements related to workplace policies and safety guidelines along with links to the required documents and e-signatures that needed to be completed prior to physically entering our building. We required all employees returning to the office to complete the LMS module prior to coming back.
COVID-19 Coordinator—Every day we have a COVID Coordinator. This person is communicated through the Phase One Slack channel and posted on our digital signs. Employees are to report any issues to this person as they come up.
We plan to use this first group in Phase One as a “test group.” We are checking in with them daily in a variety of ways. We will take their feedback and continue to make enhancements to our employee experience. We are happy to share that so far, the people who have decided to return to our office have had positive feedback.
While it was hard and continues to be a day to day evaluation, we are proud of the work we put into our planning process. We also understand that we must remain agile, always maintaining the ability to adapt to new information and key learnings—and be in the position to communicate that information quickly—in order to ensure we are moving forward with the utmost respect for the health and safety of our people. As we learn more, our plans will reflect that, likely resulting in downstream changes for phases two and three of our office re-opening. As we learn and adapt, we will continue to face any new challenge with optimism, because if this process has taught us nothing else, it has shown us that while we can’t control our circumstances, we can control how we respond.