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In the last few months, hundreds of millions of employees had to go home. It was a mass migration unlike any before it. While sheltering in place, companies have been wondering how to eventually bring all those people safely back into the office. However, there’s no road map for navigating the transition, and safety measures like clean-desk policies and one-way corridors may work at one office but not at another. The most important objective is keeping your people safe.

My team has spoken to over 100 executives from the F1000 who have offered insight into workplace strategy, health and wellness, and what the office will look like after this pandemic. These conversations have made it clear that the success of any return-to-work program depends largely on employee buy-in. The guidelines below are ways to think about implementation and communication that will build employee trust in your organization’s policies and empower them to be part of the solution.

1. Over-communicate health & safety strategy

Returning to the office will require both organizational strategy and open communication of that strategy to employees. Creating a reliable flow of information between managers and employees will build team trust and enable employees to share responsibility for a healthy work environment.

Wayfinding systems and digital signage are effective tools for communicating new policy. Consider establishing company wikis, occupancy and usage monitors, and clearly displayed cleaning schedules in order to efficiently disseminate important health and safety information to teams.

2. Create functional waves, not status waves

Companies should consider employee needs and bring people back based on function. Focusing on the functionality of a role instead of seniority will help mitigate concerns about portraying some employees as “more” important and some as “less.”

Staggering schedules and returning in waves will also help cleaning crews keep up with the resurgence in foot traffic and increased sanitary standards.

3. Prioritize payroll

If you’re looking to lower your cost base, start by reviewing your real estate portfolio. In doing so, empower employees to provide guidance on what amenities they can live without.

Putting your people first may mean putting your space second. Real estate is often an organization’s second largest budget item. Think of ways you can reduce property expenses through space consolidation and halting new projects until you understand what the work-from-home environment will look like.

4. Decentralize decision-making

If your company has offices in multiple regions, consider empowering local managers to set site-specific guidelines about their team needs. Strictly enforcing organization-wide mandates will slow down the implementation process and compromise effectiveness in different markets.

Delegating decision-making to local managers will provide team leaders agency over their office and remind employees that your organization is prioritizing their specific health and wellness over less efficient corporate directives.

5. Create WFH & office hybrid

After adjusting to a remote workforce, some companies have found they can still be as productive (or even more so) when working from home. Because of this, many employees may not want to return to the office at all. To support these changes, companies should consider enabling video conferencing in all meeting rooms. You could also establish a work-from-home budget for remote employees by redirecting the funds needed to support them in the office.

Preparing for future pandemics and office disruptions means adopting a work-from-home and office hybrid environment. Ensure that company productivity can be maintained remotely. This flexibility will increase employee agency over how and where they work.

6. Avoid excessive mandates

Too much regulation can be detrimental to cleaning initiatives. Companies should aim to create a healthy-but-not-sterile environment for employees when they return. Schedule usage-based cleaning and avoid wasting time cleaning areas that have not been visited.

If your organization adopts an excessive number of new cleaning policies, employees may find it difficult to adhere to every detail. Pick the essential policies for keeping your team safe and implement those to the letter. Otherwise, employees may start to slip up and ultimately compromise the effectiveness of all new strategies.

7. Establish strategic buffers for cleaning

Cleaning crews will need ample time and space to sanitize regularly used areas in the office. To help them succeed, establish natural buffers by staggering work schedules, distributing teams to specific/separate locations, and carefully rotating available resources to employees who need them.

These buffers will create a margin of error that will help keep your people healthy. If you can limit the overlap of teams and resources, fewer people will interact with the same spaces, and cleaning crews will be able to tend to those areas more effectively.

8. Preserve culture

COVID-19 will impact office culture. Your teams will be returning to a changed office. Consider how limited shared spaces, plexiglass dividers, and clean-desk policies will affect workplace experience. Companies should plan for this and make every effort to preserve culture. Review and re-publish core values, display team-building strategies, and support employees as they adapt to the changes.

These guidelines will help your company stay healthy while navigating the inevitable change in team culture. By following these steps, your organization can boost employee confidence and flexibility, empower managers to lead initiatives, and set your team up for success in the event of future disruptions.

Andrew Farah is CEO of people-counting startup Density.

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