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The Return to Remote Work

With COVID-19 far from over and increasing case numbers in B.C.,  how do we decide to return to remote work? Read on to determine what’s right for your organization and how to make this decision. Our strategy includes research, overcoming human psychology, and design thinking. 

At the start of the pandemic in January, it was of little concern to most in North America. Three months later, everything changed; we suddenly spent way more time in our houses and started brainstorming how to make the best of a bad situation. For a lot of people, the subsequent impact on the economy cost them their job. While government assistance has helped, it hasn’t solved everything.

With time, we’ve adjusted to a new way of life with face masks, social distancing, and a disrupted but slower-paced life.

Now, four months into living amongst COVID-19, we’re starting to see restaurants, shops, and the economy open again. It seems to signal that the risk of COVID-19 is going down. However, we also know that there’s a second wave coming.

The number of cases in British Columbia is rising once again, and we don’t know about you, but we sure are doubting if going back to normal routines was such a good idea after all.

You might be facing the decision to return to remote work. It’s not an easy decision to make, so here are our steps to deciding what’s right for your company and employees.

  1. Get over your own doubts:

You might be feeling like changing your mind and going back remote is a sign of weakness or hypocritical. But this is no regular decision. In fact, if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s the importance of flexibility and continued assessment of situations.

Your hesitation to decide has very little to do with your decision-making abilities as a leader – as our brains are wired for survival, psychology kicks in.  is greater psychology for human survival at play.

The psychology behind changing your mind

As it turns out, people change their minds far more than you think. UBC researcher, Kristin Laurin coined the phrase “psychological immune system” to explain how we change our minds to accept what we can’t change.

So, what does that mean? Laurin surveyed smokers before and after the Ontario 2015 ban on smoking in parks and restaurant patios. Prior to the ban, smokers recalled smoking in these areas 15% of the time. After the ban, it dropped to 8% – and that’s just based on memory.

When we experience something we don’t like, we rationalize it to be better in our minds. In COVID-19, that can look like believing that the risk of COVID-19 is less than it is. Our brains have rationalized the severity of the pandemic to make it more bearable. This skews your ability to decide whether being in the office is safe.

So, what do you do next?

  1. Gather input

Keeping up with the daily updates on COVID-19 is time-consuming and even stressful at times. However, getting an informed analysis of the situation is essential to the decision – we recommend going directly to the source: one of Dr. Bonnie Henry’s press conferences.

Once you’ve gathered substantial external input, it’s time to look inward to your team. There are two ways we recommend checking in with your people.

First, a survey! Organizational surveys help assess your employees’ needs in a way that is accessible and comfortable. You can check out our blog post on the benefits of surveys during COVID-19 here. Not sure where to start? Our free Organizational Surveys Tool will get you started and help you implement a survey for your organization.

Secondly, take the time to have one-on-ones with members of your team to gauge how they’re feeling. The fear and stress around COVID-19 must also be measured qualitatively. There are strong emotions and impacts on the lives of your team based on this decision, so getting their take and emotions on the idea is crucial. You can meet with managers who can speak to the needs of their team or selecting people as you see fit. Whatever you do, make sure you’re listening and letting those individuals know they’re being heard.

Empathetic leadership is why so many female leaders have been successful throughout COVID-19, and will be crucial as you lead your team through this constantly changing situation.

  1. Making the decision & communicate

Once you’ve gathered the input, it’s time to decide what’s best for your team and organization. Using your people’s input to inform the decision will increase their trust in you and is more likely to receive buy-in. However, your team is subject to the same psychological immune system that you are – so if everyone is comfortable staying in the office, that still may not be the right decision.

The preference between working from home or at the office will vary from team to team depending on internal bias and external conditions such as number of people, proximity, office location, etc.

So, when you make your decision, ensure to communicate not only what that will mean for employees, but the considerations you made before deciding. In a world where health officials and the government change the rules all the time, explaining the logic behind the decision is crucial to empathetic leadership. Deciding to return to remote work might be frustrating for employees eager to be back in the office, returning to normal, and getting socialization with their coworkers. The opposite decision might be stressful – many companies are considering a flexible approach between working at the office or from home.

After the decision has been made and takes effect, make yourself available to address any concerns about your choice.

  1. Implementation

So now that you’ve decided what the best course of action is, all’s well that ends well, right? Wrong! We recommend using design thinking principles when it comes to battling COVID-19: essentially, be flexible. Design thinking

Unfortunately, this form of thinking is not conducive to long-term planning, but neither is COVID-19. Until then, we believe this model will treat you well in responding to COVID-19. If you’re looking for more support, check out our COVID-19 Employer Response Guide.

Regardless of what you decide, make sure you’re supporting your employees and continuing to be open to input in decisions around remote or in-person work. Our Employee Resource Guide is helpful for employees working remotely.

With that, best of luck on deciding whether to return to remote work! If you’re feeling unsure, just say hello! [email protected].