Strategizing a Global Return to Work
The COVID-19 pandemic reshaped the global workforce, forcing millions of people to adopt remote work, while challenging organizations to navigate their way through unprecedented disruptions.
As the world emerges from the crisis three years on, strategizing a global return to work becomes a vital practice no business can ignore. This is particularly true in certain Asia-Pacific (APAC) countries where lockdowns ended later and where vaccination rollouts varied greatly.
With remote and hybrid working now the norm across multiple global industries, this blog will explore the key considerations and strategies organizations should adopt to ensure a smooth and successful transition to the workplace in a post-pandemic world.
What does a global return to work strategy mean?
When the global pandemic first struck, the chief concern of HR leaders was to change an office-based workforce into a remote operation. As the world re-emerges from the grip of COVID-19, those same HR leaders are now facilitating an effective return to the office or a hybrid option, otherwise known as a global return to work.
A successful post-COVID global return to work involves a well-executed strategy that prioritizes employee health, safety, and wellbeing. By strategizing a phased approach which provides a safe working environment for all employees across multiple locations or countries, embraces flexible working models, and prioritizes employee engagement, organizations can navigate through this transitional phase.
While some countries went back to pre-COVID working practices or new forms of hybrid and remote working by late 2021, others operating in areas such as the APAC region were further behind, with China only reopening in December 2022.
The fact is the world may never return to the same working model that existed before the pandemic. Remote working practices and employer flexibility have become so entrenched in our cultures that we have all become used to new and innovative ways of doing our jobs.
So, although many organizations are ahead of the curve, some will only now be implementing a return-to-work strategy that not only supports their workforce in current times, but also ensures it is adaptable, resilient, and responsive to future challenges. While a return-to-work strategy may look different for each business and industry, as well as each country, the following steps will help strategize a global return to work:
1. Embrace a phased approach
A phased approach is essential to manage the complexities of a global return to work. Employers must stay informed on the latest government mandates and medical guidance to form a strategy that protects staff on their return to the workplace.
Assess local conditions: Closely monitor COVID-19 situations in each region where your organization operates. Stay informed about vaccination rates, infection rates, and local regulations to make informed decisions. While most restrictions have been lifted, some remain in force in countries like China where proof of vaccination and a negative test is still required for international travelers including US citizens arriving in the country.
Prioritize high-impact areas: Begin the return-to-work process in areas with low transmission rates and a high level of vaccination. This approach minimizes risk and allows for the implementation of safety measures with greater ease.
Implement pilot programs: Start with pilot programs in specific locations or departments to test new protocols and gather feedback. This iterative approach also enables organizations to refine their strategies before scaling up.
Gradual return: Gradually increase the number of employees returning to the workplace based on local conditions and organizational needs. This allows for close monitoring of the situation and swift response to any emerging challenges such as new lockdown restrictions.
2. Provide a safe and healthy work environment
Creating a safe and healthy work environment is paramount for the wellbeing of employees and the successful return to work. It is important to recognize that some staff could feel uncomfortable or anxious going to the office and require added support from team leaders.
Implement health and safety protocols: Develop comprehensive protocols aligned with international and local COVID-19 guidelines. Measures such as physical distancing, mandatory mask usage, enhanced cleaning and sanitization practices, and adequate ventilation should be included.
Provide necessary resources: Equip the workplace with hand sanitization stations, personal protection equipment (PPE), and clear signage to reinforce hygiene practices. Consider investing in touchless technologies and other tools that reduce the risk of surface transmission.
Modify the physical workspace: Reconfigure desks, workstations, and common areas to maintain social distancing. Install physical barriers, limit the use of shared spaces, and consider flexible seating arrangements.
Communicate and educate: Regularly communicate the safety protocols and guidelines to employees. Conduct training sessions to educate them on new procedures, hygiene rules, and the proper use of PPE, and encourage a culture of collective responsibility.
3. Adapt remote and hybrid work models
The pandemic has taught us that most employees have the ability to work successfully and efficiently from home. The latest research shows that 74% of employers now offer hybrid working arrangements, while 68% of employees also prefer hybrid work. Many employees even prefer to work remotely, so investing in the right technology and tools that support these needs is essential in a return-to-work strategy.
Evaluate remote work options: Assess roles and tasks that can be effectively performed remotely. Consider allowing employees to continue working from home, whether full-time or part-time, based on job requirements and individual circumstances.
Hybrid work arrangements: Hybrid models that combine remote and office working helped many countries move away from the grip of the pandemic. It gave employees a balance between the benefits of remote work and the collaboration and social aspects of working in the office.
Develop guidelines and policies: Establish clear rules for remote and hybrid working, including expectations for availability, communication channels, and performance evaluation. It is also important to provide the right support and technological infrastructure for remote work, or employees could become disillusioned when technology fails.
4. Foster employee engagement and wellbeing:
Returning to work after a global crisis requires prioritizing employee engagement and wellbeing. Encourage staff to be open and transparent and share their feelings about returning to work. The following suggestions help organizations with a return-to-work strategy:
Flexible working hours: Consider offering flexible hours to accommodate personal and family needs, while recognizing the challenges faced by employees and providing support through flexible scheduling options.
Mental health support: Maintain a focus on employee mental health by providing access to resources, counselling services, and mental wellbeing programs. Encourage open communication and destigmatize seeking support when needed.
Employee feedback and involvement: Involve employees when strategizing a return-to-work policy. Seek feedback, address concerns, and make adjustments based on employee input. Engage in transparent communication to foster a sense of trust and collaboration.
Return to work strategies in the Asia Pacific region
A successful return to work strategy is essential for the economic prospects of many Asia Pacific countries. The COVID-19 pandemic is estimated to have set back the fight against poverty in the vast region by two years, with food security, access to basic health services, and education particularly suffering as a consequence.
Although APAC economies are showing signs of recovery, organizations still face unique challenges around return-to-work strategies. With so many diverse cultures, regulations, and varying levels of vaccination, it is crucial for businesses to tailor a return-to-work approach that is suitable for their specific area.
For example, China’s strict requirement of quarantine for international arrivals was still in place until January 2023. Quarantine rules were subsequently lifted, but a number of COVID-related entry criteria such as a recent negative test remain valid for many visitors arriving in China including US citizens.
Therefore, the post-COVID return to work in Asia Pacific countries requires a localized and adaptable approach so that organizations contribute to a safe and productive work environment.
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